From the Archives: Space Shots

Cover of the February 1982 issue of Art in America featuring "Saturn and its moons, Tethys and Dione," photographed in 1980 by the Voyager I spacecraft from 13 million miles.


Primarily an instrument of astronomical exploration, space photography is traversed by multiple discourses—scientific, esthetic, epistemological. Viewed in an art context, as in a recent museum exhibition, such images resemble yet differ from the earliest photographs of our world, as well as the imaginary views of outer space presented by science-fiction cinema.


When inventors of a new instrument apply it to the observation of nature, the hopes that they place upon it are always insignificant compared with the number of subsequent discoveries of which the new instrument was the origin.—Louis Arago

Science is built of data provided by one corner of the whole expanse. Perhaps it does not apply to all the rest that we do not know, which is much bigger, and can’t be discovered. —Gustave Flaubert, Bouvard and Pecuchet


Consider, for the moment, two images. The first, a production still from Fritz Lang’s 1929 film The Woman in the Moon, is a charmingly simple view of a scene in progress at UFA studios, including camera and lighting crews, the director himself, an array of high intensity lights and two movie cameras—all arranged with a clarity that suggests a representation of the cinematographic process itself. To the left is the scene to be photographed: a woman in the everyday dress of the late ’20s, positioned before a tent and waiting, or so it appears, for the director’s instructions. To the right technicians adjust lights or squint through the camera. All these activities take place before a magnificent painted backdrop of the surface of the moon. Although this barren landscape—which, oddly enough, poses no threat to unprotected explorers—appears in a film based, to an unprecedented degree, on scientific consultation, it is no less imaginary a landscape. 

The second image, a photograph taken by astronaut Charles Conrad during the Apollo 12 mission of 1969, shows his companion, astronaut Bean, on the plains of the Mare Procellarum. Astronaut Bean, who holds a vacuum-seal lunar sample container, is faceless. We see, reflected in the viewing surface of his helmet, the photographer Conrad who, like his counterpart, stands silhouetted, lit as if by artificial light, against an uneventful lunar landscape and the black lunar sky.

Between these two images stands an unbridgeable gap, an extraordinary ellipsis in the imagery of space exploration and its history. The second picture and those that accompany it in the exhibition assembled by the Grey Art Gallery and Study Center, “The Photography of Space Exploration”—bears witness to the distance between science fiction and the visible results of scientific discovery. Consisting of photographic documents ranging from an 1851 daguerreotype of the moon through the Voyager I images of Saturn—the last of the outer planets to have been photographed 1 —the exhibition is exhausting. It cannot be seen all at once. Despite the undeniable beauty of many of the photographs, others are ugly. Yet we cannot simply judge these photographs as works of art, for they were produced for quite different ends. To be ignorant of, or at least to fail to acknowledge, their scientific significance is to profoundly misunderstand these images.

Photography, especially the earliest photography, has generally been thought of as an unprecedented means of recovering the previously unseen, unsensed, immanent content of a thoroughly familiar world. Space photographs, on the other hand, depict, according to given priorities of data retrieval and complex systems of representation, aspects of largely unknown celestial bodies whose Earth-like features may be few indeed. Under these circumstances, space photographs might be expected to behave differently, to elicit rather different responses, from a photograph by Stieglitz or Ansel Adams. Since we have no knowledge of the object represented, we cannot treat the image as if it were an imprint of that object, and thus as inseparable from it. Instead, the image is detached from its object, and the photographic relationship par excellence becomes unglued.

This peeling off of the image from its object is not in itself a new observation. In a political-theoretical context, Brecht remarked that “less than at any time does a simple reproduction of reality tell us anything about reality.. .” More frequently, though, having observed this process of detachment, one becomes a formalist (and Brecht was being a formalist when he observed what he did). And it is precisely as formalists that we confront these space photographs, whether we know it or not. Hence, they are disappointing, the color is kitschy, Jupiter looks like a lava lamp, and so forth. But more significantly, once we have made such observations, we have converted these pictures from objects of scientific investigation back into objects of style. And here we discover what allows us to make comparisons between these photographs and others, only after having remarked but a few of the great differences between them.

This “stylistic resolution” of space photographs provokes the idea of an imagery of space exploration, an iconography of sorts. It was only after the possibility of telescopic observation that astronomical texts began to deal with individual planetary forms, instead of planetary motion; thus, lunar maps have been available only since the 17th century, as have images of the planets. The first photograph of the moon was made by Daguerre in 1839, at the behest of that great promoter of photography, scientist-politician Louis Arago. Jules Verne’s first science-fiction novels appeared in the 1860s, illustrated with wood engravings. 1896 marks the publication, in the United States and in Europe, of the first lunar atlases, as well as the invention of the cinema and the inception of the extraordinary career of Georges Méliès, who was to make the first film about a trip to the moon. 2

Because of its all-encompassing illusionism, science-fiction film is the privileged mediator of the photography of space exploration. It is simply not possible to look at space photographs without thinking of movies we have seen, whether recently or long ago (a sampling from the last three years: Alien, The Empire Strikes Back, the indoorsy Outland). Even at its most primitive, the cinema could depict not only the illusion of space, but also the illusion of movement within that space. It contained not only the photographically guaranteed spatial unity which evoked the possibility of action; it included time as well it was a narrative space. Thus, film could not only give you an image of the moon that seemed real enough; it could take you there as well, and it could mediate the entire voyage through characters who at least appeared not to have the slightest inkling of what they were getting into. This is exactly what was done in Méliès’s Trip to the Moon (1902).

This was the first science-fiction film, and it offered a spectacular inventory of the illusionistic apparatus of the 19th-century stage, as well as a parody of the imagery of space exploration.[pq]We cannot simply judge space photographs as works of art, for they were produced for quite different ends. To ignore their scientific significance is profoundly to misunderstand these images.[/pq]Like the later Impossible Voyage (1906), it brought together Jules Verne the pioneer of the science-fiction novel and friend of the photographer Nadar, who began his career in the theater (in a masquerade at Amiens in 1877, it was Nadar who jumped out of the make-believe rocket of From Earth to the Moon) and the pioneer of cinema, Méliès, who, as Georges Sadoul remarked, “explored every device of the theater in order to exploit it for the cinema.” 3 Through the unification of stage machinery and the specifically cinematic devices of the “trick film”—namely, stop motion, editing, variable speed photography, composite images made possible through camera masks and superimposition—Méliès laid the groundwork for science fiction in film, which was always to exploit and constantly to improve upon an ever-growing arsenal of special effects. Put another way, science fiction in film presupposes just what Méliès was able to accomplish: the creation of an artificial world and, through the reconstruction of the image and the splicing together of separate pieces of film, the suspension of the laws of physical reality.

Méliès’s prolific but cottage-industry production was soon superseded by the massive consolidation of film production and distribution which produced the film industry as we know it today, along with a multitude of newly developed special effects techniques. This process of consolidation paralleled advances in ballistics research in Germany, a development which made possible what would have been the grandest publicity stunt in movie history. What would have been the first rocket in space was to have been designed by one of Lang’s technical advisors on The Woman in the Moon and launched on the film’s opening day. The same technical advisor, Hermann Oberth, went on to design V-1 and V-2 rockets for the Germans; he resurfaced in Hollywood in 1950, as technical advisor for George Pal’s Destination Moon. One remembers less of °berth’s rocketry than the film’s lunar landscape. Despite its limitations, the 360-degree panorama that introduces us to the surface of that absolutely other place has the grandeur of a first encounter with the unknown.

Pal’s last movie about space exploration, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, was released in 1964. In November of that year, Mariner 4 was launched and began returning the first close-up images of Mars in the summer of 1965. Between July 1966 and August 1967 five Lunar Orbiter spacecraft were launched, all of which returned readout images of unprecedentedly high resolution. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 was released in late 1968.

2001 represents the last major breakthrough in the American commercial cinema. 4 Released scarcely a year before the Apollo landings, its perfection of surface, “high resolution” and minute attention to details of lighting and relationships of scale combine to create, on the cave-like surface of the Cinerama screen, an image not only of the moon, but also of the conditions, the experience of space travel.

At this point, the parallel between space photography and science-fiction cinema becomes explicit. The means of production of both images—though on vastly disparate scales—is alike in the specialization imposed and the technological advances manifested. With both the “reality” of scientific photos and the “illusion” of science-fiction films, much of our wonder is displaced from the image itself to the process of obtaining it. This is so because both enterprises are engaged in an incessant technological expansion whose end is the perfection of the means of representation itself.

Space photography poses certain basic problems of image production, retrieval and analysis. There are two kinds of images in the exhibition: ground-processed photographs made by astronauts using commercially available Hasselblad cameras (these are actual “photographs” as we know them); and readout images, assembled either from direct vidicon scan of a planet’s surface from a moving spacecraft, from line-scan transmission of film developed within the spacecraft (the Lunar Orbiter pictures), or from fully digitalized computer scan images, from Mariner 4 on through the highly complex Viking Lander and Voyager transmissions. Readout images comprise the vast majority of space photos, and must be considered somewhat differently from “normal” photographs.

The nature of photography changes radically when the object photographed is not a known but an unknown object. For the purposes of scientific inquiry, the photograph is not an end product, but a link in a communication system or, to put it another way, a single phase in an interpretive process. Thus, computer derived space photography is based upon a priori decisions concerning what it is we wish to know—decisions which, in turn, determine what signals are to be returned. Those decisions are used to consider, as well, how that information can be recorded and returned to the ground. This information must then be reconstructed or “enhanced” to yield the sought-after answers to the predetermined questions. Yet the whole system must be flexible enough to discover situations which were unimaginable beforehand.

This process is one of consummate artificiality. It bespeaks tremendous technological resources marshaled for the production of single images—images which are only part of a continuous process of endless manipulation. The Viking Lander images, for example, are mosaics of individually calibrated picture elements, or “pixels,” produced by a vertically scanning camera which, after each scan, rotates a little about an axis perpendicular to the horizon. A single picture takes 12 minutes to produce. The vertical scan lines are mapped along the black margins of the picture, functioning like a coordinate system. Color keys appear in both the Viking Lander and the Voyager pictures (but have been cropped out in the illustrations here). Such keys serve both as spectographic references and as guides for printing the final photograph. The same scan can produce different images, generate different information, depending upon which one of a selection of diodes of varying photoelectric sensitivities records each vertical scan.

This process produces pictures whose composite character is visible to the naked eye. They shimmer. Texture and volume are involved in a continual play between the object photographed and the fabric of the reconstituted image. In a Voyager I picture of Saturn and two of its moons, we are struck by the psychedelic color, the drafting-table shapes (the rings could have been drawn with a French curve), the appearance of a fat, empty volume—Saturn is mostly weather—and the excessive definition of the shadows of its rings. Contrast has been heightened to clarify the structural properties of the rings, just as color has been more or less enhanced according to predetermined criteria. A real photograph would have registered nothing like this.

Thus, the typical readout image is an intensely coded image. It is, moreover, unique to the degree that it makes its conditions of representation explicit. It flaunts what most photography hides, namely the conventions which determine what is an adequate representation and what is not. Space photographs are models of what semiological photography criticism would call “openly semantic systems.” 5 When we look at the line-scan strips of the Lunar Orbiter photos, the readout images produced by the telemetry of the laborious vertical scan cameras of the Viking Landers, or the shimmering pixels of the Voyager 1 and 2 probes, we are forced to realize the openness with which the means of representation is itself represented.

Parallels with modernism in the other arts aside, we may still find this bothersome in a photograph- We don’t look for pushy self-assertions of the artifice of the photographic process even today (leaving that, for the most part, to painters and filmmakers), preferring the seamlessness of the photograph emulsion which guarantees the invisibility of the means of representation and the apparent inexhaustibility of the image itself. Because of its legendary transparency, we have always looked to photography as a means for the reproduction of the visible world in which human intervention, especially of the “artistic,” manipulative kind, is reduced to a minimum. Put another way, Walter Benjamin saw photography as a means to effect a singular reclamation, to register an image of a space not “worked through by human consciousness” but which is “affected unconsciously.” 6

All photography performs a twofold reduction of its subject matter. Not only does it offer portable images that are also “true” to life; it performs a more subtle transformation of its subject matter as well: it brings it closer. Indeed, the abolition of distance between perceiving subject and the object perceived (Paestum, let’s say) defines the completely new relationship implemented by photography. And this relationship seems to constitute photography as an unprecedented instrument of discovery, one whose esthetic pedigree is grounded in epistemological inquiry and stamped with the impress of science.

It is the conscious attempt of space photography to annihilate the most absolute distance, namely that which separates us from the stars. Still, the vast majority of these “photographs,” no matter how often they are reproduced in the newspapers, the weeklies, or the National Geographic, tell us nothing or, at least, very little about the objects they incarnate. Our distance from these objects in space is no longer a physical distance; it is one that is suggested, rather, by the volumes of articles and monographs generated by each image. Hence, their ultimate appearance as well as their meaning is, so far, the product of specialized competence; they remain, for most of us, opaque. This is one of the things about these photographs that makes them so intriguing. They do not strip away; they seem, rather, to construct a mask. The Viking Lander images show little else but reddish rocks of more or less equal size and distribution which suggest, perhaps, a horde of invading turtles massing against the horizon line of the pinkish sky.

Almost all of the Viking Lander images—and the photos taken by astronauts as well—impress us with their consistently high horizon, their often artful massing of shadows, strange discontinuities between foreground and middle distance modeled by an unearthly light. Above all, they are empty. This emptiness, or lack of incident, calls to mind the documentary work of the masters of primitive photography—Salzmann, du Camp, Langlois, O’Sullivan. For example, Jean-Charles Langlois’ Detail of the Fortification at Malakhov (1855) offers no clue to the object’s function and no useful index of scale; the image is all texture. Du Camp’s Profile of the Great Sphinx… (1849-51), apart from its barely recognizable subject, is all sand and rocks. Although space photographs have neither this density nor presence, their content is equally unfamiliar. Perhaps because they are opaque, space photographs are close to but different from like but unlike—these early photographic images. Neither divests familiar objects of our perceptual habits; both reduce the unimaginable to a snapshot, and thus strike us as uncanny.

Photography of this world generally gives us only what “has been” a testimony of sorts. But this testimony is meaningful only insofar as it gives us back a world we already know, which forms the basis for seeing whatever hidden aspect of things photography might reveal. What strikes us about space photography is that to experience it is to in some way define an itinerary for the constitution of the world, in this case, “the beyond,” where one begins not by seeing, touching or hearing, but by looking at photographs. It becomes a sort of substitute metaphysics, where the intelligible world is based not upon our subjective representations, but upon the external, artificially determined, yet somehow literal representations that photographs provide. 

After its New York showing, the exhibition traveled to England, where it opened at the London Science Museum. This contextual shift from an art gallery to a science museum is only one indication of the multiple discourses that traverse not only space photography but also—despite the spurious claims of the marketplace—all photography of this world. If space photographs are not art, they are nonetheless interesting for the epistemological questions they raise, and for the problems of representation they pose with special urgency. They have an esthetic dimension as well, but only insofar as other discourses conjure it up. It has been said that “the profound importance of photographic exploration is that it provides the opportunity to discover situations that were unimaginable beforehand.” 7 Aside from the questions it raises, the parallels it suggests, or the information it provides, the photography of space exploration does not equivocate on one point: it annihilates our expectations. It is faithful to its subject to the extent that it presents it as recognizably alien. Thus, the imaginary itineraries charted in the movies may soon give way to new ones, more marvelous still, which cannot be imagined but which will nevertheless come to be known.


Organized by the Grey Art Gallery and Study Center, “The Photography of Space Exploration” was at the London Science Museum, where it closed January 30, 1982. The exhibition reopened at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, and then proceeded on a 3-year tour of the U.S.