Images as Evidence
A bit on the nose, perhaps.
This photograph, taken by Gary Winogrand, provides a direct historical record of the Apollo 11 moon mission. It stuck out to me in the exhibit for a few reasons.
First, because I think it fairly explicitly exemplifies a key part of this week’s reading; scientific images can have the effect of humanizing science, making it a more visceral reality. Relatively few people were directly involved in the Space Race in general, or in the Apollo missions in particular, but the American public was completely engaged with both. While much of that is down to nationalistic, anti-Soviet sentiment, I think it’s important to acknowledge the role images played in uniting the nation for a common purpose.
Second, I enjoy the symbolism of the image. John F. Kennedy gave his famous speech declaring America’s intention to land a manned craft on the moon on September 12, 1962, just over two months after Launch Operations Center (LOC) was founded in Florida. JFK was assassinated on November 22, 1963, after which LOC was renamed to Kennedy Space Center. This image shows the fulfillment of Kennedy’s vision, both literally and figuratively, putting man on the moon and bringing back together a nation which had largely lost the sense of unity that had sustained it through WWII.
And finally, I’m a huge fan of the history of the space program in general, and artifacts like this always grab my attention. I think that the public today has largely lost sight of the importance of government-funded research. The amount of technology which came directly out of NASA programs of the 1960s — and the resultant impact on the economy — is simply staggering. This image and others like it gave the nation direct evidence of what their investment had bought them. I think that similar contemporary images — say, the images Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity have been sending back from Mars — have had a much less profound impact upon the public consciousness. For whatever reason, we seem unmoved by pictures taken 230,000,000 kilometers away, on an alien world. Yet forty years ago, hundreds of millions of people around the world watched the first broadcast from Apollo 11, live, huddled around their television sets at all times of day and night. There’s probably an interesting analysis in the disparate rhetorical force of those two sets of images, though it is probably one to be conducted by someone less given to pseudo-misanthropic ramblings than I.
As an aside not terribly related to the rest of this post, throughout the exhibit I found myself again reminded of a quote from Robert Rosenstone, in his book Visions of the Past, which I mentioned in a comment in the discussion forum last week:
For we can always see and feel much that the people in old photos and newsreels could not: That their clothing and automobiles were old-fashioned, that their landscape lacked skyscrapers and other contemporary buildings, that their world was black, and white, and haunting, and gone.
[Note: In truth, I didn't even try to take a picture while I was at the exhibit. I don't think anyone would have yelled at me, but it has long been my policy to try, whenever possible, to avoid being kicked out of museums. Fortunately I think almost all of the pieces in the exhibit are quite well-known, and I was easily able to locate the photograph I wanted to use online.]