The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The most stirring photo from the Apollo mission wasn’t of the moon. It was of the Earth.

Astronaut William Anders’s “Earthrise,” taken onboard Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve 1968. (Gift of Jules Bergman, 1984, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, the New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)
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The most important visual image associated with the moon landing of July 20, 1969, was not any picture of the landing itself. It was the photograph taken on Christmas Eve the previous year, 1968, when William Anders, an astronaut aboard Apollo 8, responding to mission commander Frank Borman’s astonishment, grabbed a Hasselblad camera and photographed the Earth.

Our planet, a quarter of a million miles away, had just appeared over the lunar horizon.

The image, which became known as “Earthrise,” would go on to be a symbol of the environmentalist movement and a great rearranger of human priorities.

A similar photograph had been taken two years earlier and was widely disseminated, but it didn’t grip the imagination the same way. It was in black-and-white, which meant the shock of the Earth’s blueness against the vast black of space couldn’t register. And it was taken by a remotely controlled camera on board Lunar Orbiter 1 — one of five NASA probes which systematically photographed 99 percent of the moon’s surface between 1966 and 1967.

“Earthrise,” the Apollo 8 image, was in color, and just as crucially, it was taken by an astronaut. Anders was there, alongside Borman and Jim Lovell, seeing what the camera saw. That made all the difference.

“It was the most beautiful, heart-catching sight of my life,” Borman recalled, “one that sent a torrent of nostalgia, of sheer homesickness, surging through me. It was the only thing in space that had any color to it. Everything else was either black or white, but not the Earth.”

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The Earth’s sudden appearance from behind a moon magnified by proximity “was nothing short of a revelation,” Mia Fineman wrote in the catalogue to “Apollo’s Muse: The Moon in the Age of Photography,” an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. But what, exactly, was being revealed?

The history of art (which surely includes photography) is a history of human desire. It’s a history of the things we want to see, the things we want to show, and how we have wanted to see and show them. The moon, which has always been with us, deserves a prominent place in this history. Both “Apollo’s Muse” and “By the Light of the Silvery Moon: A Century of Lunar Photographs” at the National Gallery of Art trace the waxing of our desire for lunar images since the 19th century.

But it’s interesting to think about what happens within art history — as within any marriage — when desire wanes, and priorities are rearranged. How much, we might ask, do we love the moon now, compared with 50 or 60 years ago?

Seeing it then was something people acutely desired. They wanted it so badly that their desire pushed human ingenuity to astonishing new levels, producing a cascade of indelible images in the process.

People wanted these images in the first place because the moon is mysterious. It always has been. More pressingly, they wanted them because, in the context of the Space Race and the Cold War, uncovering the secrets of the moon spoke to their pride and to the demands of winning a war of propaganda. They wanted it, finally, because it was a distraction from thinking about an explosion of racial and generational turmoil at home, and from the unfolding disaster in Vietnam, where, by 1969, U.S. troop levels stood at just under half a million, with victory looking ever more elusive, ever harder to envisage.

Unlike the moon.

Imagine an object of desire coming toward you, getting closer. (But not in person — just as a series of images.) First it appears as a distant disc, pale and flat, ripe for fantasy and projection. Suddenly it is a recognizable shape, with markings, like a cuneiform tablet or perhaps a face, getting bigger and bigger until, magnified now, it fills the frame, a voluptuous, surprisingly textured figure with volumes, protuberances and hollows.

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That must have been what it was like for the global public in the 1960s as spacecraft captured images that took us closer and closer to the moon. There was something almost erotic about it: a lunar striptease.

The Soviets had led the way. They had sent a dog into space, then a man, then a woman. All by 1963. Even before that, in September 1959, one of their probes, Luna 2, had become the first human-made object to touch the moon.

Up until that point, no one had seen the dark side of the moon — the side that, because the moon rotates on its axis at the same rate that it orbits around the Earth, had always remained maddeningly invisible, like the back of your head in a world without mirrors. But about a month after Luna 2 struck the moon’s surface, the Soviets launched Luna 3. Equipped with a dual-lens 35mm camera and an onboard image-processing system, the probe produced 20 photographs that capture nearly three-quarters of the moon’s unmapped “dark side.”

One of those images, released by the usually secretive Soviets, is in the Metropolitan Museum’s show and reprinted in the catalogue. Blurry and marked up with annotations, it marks, Fineman wrote, “a groundbreaking moment in the history of visual culture.”

Also in the history of desire. It was almost 10 years (and 16 No. 1 hits by the Beatles) before Apollo 8 became the first crewed spacecraft to enter lunar orbit, allowing Anders to take “Earthrise.”

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Our desire for the moon was waxing at that point. Since then, inevitably, it has waned. “Earthrise” — despite being temporarily eclipsed by those extraordinary images (the foot print, the flag-planting) of the moon landing the following year — was the turning point.

You can sense the change in the words of Anders and Borman, brave astronauts who, having almost reached their hearts’ desire, found themselves afflicted by “a torrent of nostalgia,” something almost like remorse.

Said Anders: “Our Earth was quite colorful, pretty, and delicate compared to the very rough, rugged, beat-up, even boring lunar surface. I think it struck everybody that here we’d come 240,000 miles to see the moon and it was the Earth that was really worth looking at.”

Today, the wisdom latent in Anders’s words is obvious. Humans have created an emergency here on Earth and need, more than anything, to solve the problem of how to be at home where we are. For all that we can do in space, we have learned enough to understand that nowhere within reach is sensibly habitable.

Certainly, nowhere else is as beautiful, as desirable. “People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us,” Iris Murdoch wrote. And she is, of course, right.

“Earthrise” is an image of our planet without national borders, without hierarchies, without even a right side up (the photograph as it was taken shows the moon as a vertical line on the right; it was turned on its side for publication to make it read more like an earthly horizon). It shows the Earth very far away, but — in the bigger scale of things — proximate, fragile, contingent, like the child you wave to on the other side of the departures gate.

When “Earthrise” appeared, it inspired an essay, published on the front page of the New York Times on Christmas Day 1968 by the poet Archibald MacLeish, a veteran of World War I: “To see the earth as it truly is,” he wrote, “small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold — brothers who know now they are truly brothers.”

How, I wonder, must this have sounded to the soldiers fighting in Vietnam, at the height of that war? MacLeish, as a veteran of war, may well have been thinking of them.

Worth noting, too, is that Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” came out between the taking of “Earthrise” and the moon landing, and shortly before an atrocious, futile battle was fought over Hill 937 in Vietnam, dubbed the Battle of Hamburger Hill.

“Slaughterhouse-Five” tells a story based on Vonnegut’s own experience as a prisoner of war in Dresden in 1945, when Allied forces firebombed that city. When, after the first night of bombing, Vonnegut, an Army private, emerged with his fellow POWs from the basement of the slaughterhouse in which they were being held captive, they found, he wrote, “a moonscape.”

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The drive to land humans on the moon was many things, so many of them positive. But hindsight suggests that it was also part of an attempted escape from reality, a sublimation, a magnificent, elaborate diversion from acute terrestrial problems. Vonnegut’s literary imagery reminds us that, for all the desire we once projected onto it, and for all the many things it represents, the moon belongs where it is, and we belong here, on Earth, which we must try very hard not to transform into a moonscape.

By the Light of the Silvery Moon: A Century of Lunar Photographs Through Jan. 5, 2020, National Gallery of Art.

Apollo’s Muse: The Moon in the Age of Photography Through Sept. 22, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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