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When I was a child, the astronomical images I most eagerly sought out couldn’t properly be called “astronomical” at all: they were captured by probes (more frequently robotic, more famously human) that had situated their point of view — and therefore mine — on the surface of a geosphere that wasn’t Earth. The images were beguiling and beautiful less often for the visual experience — the landscapes of Mars or Venus are in these pictures stubbornly ordinary — than for the knowledge I vested in them, or perhaps for the color they brought to my knowledge. These were places, actual locales, from which no compass could point you home.
They were also hardly the norm. The vernacular of outer space is not principally one of places, but of images viewed from a place, and hung in the deceivingly intimate gallery of the night sky. In our image-saturated age, we might heed our mode of engagement with these pictures, which range from the painterly abstraction of galaxies and nebulae, to the almost cartoonish orbs that populate the Voyager oeuvre, to the Moon’s familiar portrait.
The last of these is featured in a new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Apollo’s Muse: The Moon in the Age of Photography, commemorating this summer’s 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing. I imagine it presents an uncommon curatorial challenge to mount such an extensive show on a single subject, especially one as literally quotidian as the face of the Moon. The exhibition, which actually begins before the age of photography with Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius, solves this problem in part by reconstructing the sense of dispossession that must have been felt on viewing the earliest astronomers’ hand-drawn reproductions of the lunar surface as it appeared through their telescopes. The drawings bear essentially no resemblance to any feature of the Moon on view in the sky, a disjunction hardened by the fact that the astronomers may have had no real, physical conception of what they were seeing.
The difficulty of assimilating these images with an idea of the Moon founded only in its naked-eye visage would, I suspect, have been nearly impossible to transcend. This disconnect makes some sense of one of the exhibition’s quirkier offerings: an 1835 lithograph picturing the Moon’s surface as a place of dense forests and strange winged creatures, inspired by a series of articles in the New York Sun claiming astronomers had observed such things. The articles, which were a hoax, apparently convinced some segment of the paper’s readership — a credulousness that belies the sharp division the public was willing to entertain between the Moon as they had seen it and the Moon as astronomers (purportedly) did. To the unitary, mythic Moon had been added an astronomical counterpart. The Earth had, in the popular imagination, not one Moon but two.
I was intrigued to discover the intellectual provenance of many of the exhibition’s offerings: the drawings and photographs were mostly the work of scientists and had been produced, at least notionally, for scientific purposes. This raises the question of what’s to be gained by showing them in an art museum. The exhibition’s motive may have been precisely to blur the line between scientific and artistic ends — after all, both the arts and sciences are, in certain guises anyway, exercises in seeing. But I think the real benefit runs somewhat deeper. Where the sciences aspire to state what we know, the arts at their most effective demonstrate how we know. Rudolf Arnheim argued in Leonardo magazine that a concept is — indeed must be — originally constructed from an accretion of sensory material, and until July 1969 the concept of the Moon had been made exclusively out of images.
This remains true today of the concept we popularly call “outer space” writ (boundlessly) large. Ours is a cosmos divided, like the Moon of the 1830s, between the pictured and the real, and the character of the pictorial asserts a powerful influence over our conception of the actual — and over how that conception is destabilized and rebuilt. (The same could be said, to be sure, of our Instagrammed social universe.) The dynamic has some interesting ramifications. For instance, we tend to fixate on the objects, the imageable (imaginable?) stuff that inhabits the heavens to the exclusion of the oddly immaterial medium of space in which they’re situated. We also ascribe a strange unity of personality to those objects, as if galaxies and planets, quasars and asteroids are, however different under almost any meaningful mode of description, somehow members of the same class, or signatures of the same will or temperament. And we assume that outer space has a location, and that location is not here but there, someplace else.
Or is it? The most famous images to come out of the Apollo missions were undoubtedly those of the Earth, which, at the farthest extent of the astronauts’ flight, occupied the part of their field of view that the Moon normally occupies of ours. The poetry of these photographs is familiar; their irony, less so. Yet sometimes I fear that the astronauts’ urge to look back may in fact have had consequences that were, for the rest of us, more Orphean than Apollonian. Our place had become a mere picture, and in this we may have taken one small yet inexorable step toward the final alienation of the Earth.
Apollo’s Muse: The Moon in the Age of Photography continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through September 22. It was curated by Mia Fineman, a curator in the Department of Photographs, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with contributions by Beth Saunders, the curator and head of Special Collections and the gallery at the Albin O. Kuhn Library & Gallery.