Moonstruck

The photographer who compiled NASA's spectacular lunar photos talks about how they almost didn't happen, and how they changed his life.


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David Bowman
September 3, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Michael Light has been consumed -- no, possessed -- by the moon for more than four years. Light is a San Francisco landscape photographer drawn to the crystalline purity found in desert light. Five years ago, he was shooting aerial photographs of the American Southwest when he realized that the mesas and hoodoos resembled the surface of the moon. He then began camping out at the NASA archive in Houston, where 32,000 images of the moon are stored. He looked at each one, hunting for photos that transcended Life magazine-style shots of the American flag being planted in moon dust or an astronaut teeing off against a cratered background. Instead, he sought images that conveyed the sublimity of the moon's utterly alien landscape. The result, "Full
Moon," is a beautiful book. But putting it together almost broke Light's spirit, driving him to despair, self-doubt ... and perhaps even lunacy.

When I was a kid, I assumed the moon would be colonized by now, but Stanley Kubrick got it wrong. Hilton hotels do not orbit the Earth. We haven't been to the moon since '72.

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I was 6 when Neil [Armstrong] planted the flag. And I ran around with lunchboxes that had pictures of Buzz [Aldrin] and Neil on them. I drank Tang and thought it was cool. But by 1975 I was off riding bicycles, whatever. I was no longer interested in space until about five years ago, when I started checking out the NASA archives.

Do taxpayers own those pictures?

Yes. We do.

Did you have to pay rights?

No. No. This is a public archive. If you go and get the actual image number of a photograph, NASA will make a print for a nominal fee. But what you'll get is a duplicate of a duplicate of a duplicate. What I did was negotiate with NASA for about nine months to get access to their masters, which are one generation away from the originals. Nobody touches the originals. They're in frozen storage in the ground.

Were they taken with a regular camera?

A regular camera. A hand-held Hasselblad on the moon. After I got the masters off-site, I digitally scanned them. I didn't duplicate them as much as clone them. So they're extremely sharp. They're sharper than anything anyone has ever really seen. Of course the pictures themselves show immense sharpness because they depict a world without air, without atmosphere.

What are the qualities of taking a photograph in a vacuum?

I'm not an optical scientist, but as a working photographer it means basically that the photos have intense, intense clarity.

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The black-and-white photos are intense, but the color ones are washed out. You wouldn't want to shoot a color fashion spread on the moon.

The surface of the moon is just filled with very bright light. People often ask me, "Where are the stars?" And the answer is because the surrounding illumination is so bright, you have to close the aperture of the camera way down -- the stars can't been seen by the camera. Or by the human eye.

You have to retell the story about John Glenn and the first camera in space.

Here it is. But know that it's hard for us to put ourselves back into 1961, 1962. Doctors didn't even know if the body would survive in zero gravity. Would the heart continue beating? Would the blood continue to flow? The lack of knowledge was extreme. NASA's attitude toward astronauts with cameras was completely hostile -- "Listen, you're going to have enough on your mind just running this space capsule. No we're not going to let you take any pictures. It's totally irrelevant." John Glenn was getting ready --

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You forgot a good part -- initially NASA didn't even want the capsule to have windows.

Exactly. No windows at all. The whole argument was "Chimp in a can" -- that was Chuck Yeager's great dismissal of the astronauts. Anyway, John Glenn just said, "To hell with this. I'm going to go down to Cocoa Beach." He went to a drugstore and bought himself a cheap 35-millimeter rangefinder camera, then had it modified so he could operate it with a spacesuit glove. He shot a couple of rolls of color negative film.

Glenn couldn't really sneak the camera aboard the capsule, could he?

That's a good question. I honestly don't know the truth. I would imagine that he was not able to sneak it aboard. Probably he just put his foot down and there was a big row.

Then as the Mercury program evolved into Gemini, the capsule had better windows. Two astronauts. It would go up for days at a time. It really was the great astronaut Wally Schirra, who was an amateur photographer, who got the Hasselblad put in the space program. They were then coming home with fantastic pictures. At that point, the scientists on earth were coming unglued because of all this fantastic aerial photography of the earth. Also NASA realized -- "ding!" -- this is the ultimate way to involve taxpayers in these missions. By the time of Apollo, geological photographs were crucial to the mission.

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In the end, was Apollo worth all the money it cost?

Certainly it was worth it as far as I'm concerned. The moon is one of the most extraordinary landscapes that humans have ever been to. That question touches on the old argument of "Is it better to send robots or people?" I think, hands down, in regards to the moon that it was better to send people, because they're not robots making decisions. We send robots to Mars because we're not quite ready to send humans --

Mars has an atmosphere. What would the light be like?

It's very pink because there is so much red dust in the air.

Are there clouds?

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Clouds on Mars? That's a good question. I don't know if there is actual loose water vapor. In fact, I don't think that there is. There is ice on Mars. In a former life, Mars was full of water.

So Mars used to have pink clouds.

Mars used to have water and pink clouds. The great similarity between the moon and the American West is the concept of taming the frontier. I've always been drawn to how Manifest Destiny as a ideology just happened. In a metaphorical sense, the moon missions fit right into a long line of American mythology about the West. It was all touched by this kind of rhetoric. That continues to amaze me.

A politically correct jump -- the government is planning to dump nuke stuff in the Yucca mountains near Death Valley because they believe the American desert is dead.

Deserts are continually seen as nonentities that don't count.

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React from your gut: The moon is dead, Earth is alive. Wouldn't it make sense to dump the nuke poison up there?

My gut is: I'm terribly fond of this landscape. I want any further intrusion to be extremely controlled. When I hear people talking about resort hotels on Mars, blah blah blah -- and you would be surprised who says these things; I won't go into names -- I just go through the roof.

I would rather see the nuke junk rocketed off in a trajectory with the sun. That would be great. You would be returning it to original source.

Ah!

You know what I mean? Keep like with like.

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Don't name names, but people are actively working to put a resort hotel on the moon?

Oh sure. Sure. Commercialization of space. And adventure space shuttle travel.

But can we really afford noncommercial exploration of outer space? One could argue the money should be spent on a cure for AIDS or the Ebola virus.

You can make that argument. On the other hand, I'm an artist. I operate in the realm of excess and the unnecessary. Painters are not necessary. Artists have been funded by the wealthy, by those with excess at their disposal, since the beginning of history. I think what I do is pretty important. I tend to go for the purely artistic, and I tend to go for the purely scientific report.

Hmmm. If I were Satan, this is what I would offer you. I'd say, "Mike, I'm going to send you to the moon with Disney. You can take as many photos as you want, but then Disney is going to build a theme park."

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I wouldn't do it.

Your morals are that strong?

I'd think I'd probably commit suicide after taking the pictures because Disney building a park would make me so upset. I guess the salient question is, Would my not going prevent the project from going forward or not? It would probably not. The project would go forward without me. No. [pause] That's a good one. I would have to say, on a moral level, "No." But on a journalistic level -- oooh, if I were the only one to go ...

I think you have to say yes to Satan and yes to going with Disney to the moon.

Oh man. It would probably break me. I would come home so disillusioned about civilization and without hope for human kind. I'm a landscape photographer for a reason. I like people, you know -- I'm social, not a recluse, none of those things. But I am more interested in the "not we" than the "we." I'm not a fashion photographer. I'm not a portrait photographer for a reason. I'm not interested in humans. And the reason is -- humans I think are pretty [pause] wonderful, but deep down ... Uh, God, I'd much rather look at geology and weather, all the things that are larger than us because we are so small. Grumpy. Violent. Hell, I'm much more interested in the bigger issues. We're also so transient. Grabby little monsters that only live 70 years and then -- heh heh heh -- disappear. So my great comfort, a spiritual pursuit as well, is the great enduring things.

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I have to say that even if Disney builds theme parks on the moon, it will endure. Just as the earth will endure. Geology is going to endure no matter what we do to it. It will endure a nuclear holocaust. But I don't see human civilization as a whole taking any responsibility for its actions. We're breeding more of ourselves at an outrageously alarming rate. Ripping down the rain forests in Brazil because peasants have a viable need to get land. All these things are very reasonable -- if there are peasants out there they should have land. The question is, "Do we need that many more peasants?" And the Pope is saying, "Breed, breed, breed." It's crazy.

Do you believe in extraterrestrial life?

I do think there is extraterrestrial life out there. Every alien freak out there has contacted me. I will say that it's a documented fact that the astronauts were most often moved and transformed by being a million and quarter miles out in space. By seeing the vastness of the universe like humans have never seen it before. Some of them had religious experiences on the moon -- came back to become dedicated ministers for the rest of their lives. Others have even gone so far as to create a unified theory of science and religion. I think most of the astronauts were permanently moved to the edge of their psyches.

Why did it take 30 years for this book to come out?

I think society is still trying to digest the meanings of these journeys 30 years on. "Full Moon" has come out in the summer of my nemesis, George Lucas', awful "The Phantom Menace," a narcissistic projection of all that we already know to other worlds and other life forms, even down to ethnic stereotypes. It is not about the truly alien or the truly unknown. Those are really hard questions to answer. Stanley Kubrick kind of got there with "2001." There's a movie that is essentially without dialogue. It's silent. That's something to pull off.

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In my little small way -- not to align myself with Stanley Kubrick -- one of the main strategies in "Full Moon" was to remove text. It is a 200-page visual sequence. And that's very rare, to get a 200-page visual sequence without text put into a commercially published book.


David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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