Books: Were Apollo Astronauts the Finest Photographers of the 20th Century?

By David Schonauer   Thursday March 30, 2017

Make a mental list of the best photographers of the last century.

Stieglitz. Steichen. Cartier-Bresson. Penn. Avedon. Salgado, just to name a few.

For his part, Dutch designer Simon Phillipson adds 33 other names to the list — the astronauts of the Apollo space missions. Phillipson holds that the photographs taken by the astronauts stand apart because they expanded our understanding of what it is to be human, to live on “a delicate little orb” amid the cosmos.

Phillipson is not an unbiased historian of photography; along with designers Floris Heyne, Joel Meter and Delano Steenmeijer, he has just released the book Apollo VII – XVII, featuring 225 photographs taken by the astronauts. But the images make a compelling case for his assertions, notes Wired.

While astronaut photography is often seen as historical documentation or scientific evidence, the new book considers the images as breathtaking art.

“We wanted to give them a place where we can nominate them as some of the most significant ‘photographers’ in human history,” Phillipson says.

The internet is awash in NASA photography, including images made by the Apollo astronauts, but, as Wired notes, the pictures have never looked like this before. Phillipson and his colleagues spent a year restoring images culled from NASA, the Hasselblad archive in Sweden, and the personal collection of astronaut Walter Cunningham, the Lunar Module Pilot on Apollo 7 — the first manned Apollo mission. Cunningham also contributed an essay to the book.

The text focuses on his pioneering experimentation and testing of the Hasselblad camera that flew with him on board, notes Creative Boom. It was his endeavors that created the foundation for his fellow Apollo astronauts, including William Anders, Neil Armstrong and Eugene Cernan, to capture some of the most well-known Apollo photographs — including the view of “Earthrise” over the lunar surface, the shot of the first footprint on the moon, and the iconic “Blue Marble” photo capturing the whole of the Earth in a single frame.

“In the early days of the space program, NASA only dabbled in photography,” adds Wired. “Engineers and astronauts were too busy figuring out how to actually venture into space, and return safely, and cameras required entirely too much room.” Astronaut Walter Schirra — one of America’s original Mercury astronauts who went on to fly in the Gemini and Apollo programs —  changed all that. “The astronaut burst into tears when the brass told him he couldn’t bring his Hasselblad aboard Mercury Atlas-8 in 1962. They relented, and NASA soon embraced photography,” Wired notes.

NASA named Richard Underwood its first chief of photography. “He was a visionary who advocated for experimenting with cameras during the Mercury and Gemini programs,” notes Wired. “Later, he taught Apollo astronauts how to frame shots, set exposures, and calculate focus, and encouraged them to tote their Hasselblads on personal trips to hone their skills. ‘Your key to immortality,’ he told them, ‘is in the quality of your photographs and nothing else.’”

Cunningham, Schirra, and astronaut Donn Eisele carried a Hasselblad 500c camera modified with larger knobs on Apollo 7. Later astronauts used a range of cameras—the Hasselblad Electric Camera, the Hasselblad Electric Data Camera, the Hasselblad Super Wide Camera, and a Nikon 35mm Photomic FTn— on their missions, shooting everything from tourist-like travel pictures to images used to identify lunar landing sites.


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