“By the Light of the Silvery Moon: A Century of Lunar Photographs,” an exhibition of the lunar photos from the infancy of photography up to the human-crewed moon landing, is set to close after its final weekend on Jan. 5 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
The exhibit contains stereoscopy albumen photographs dating back to 1860. Stereoscopes were an early form of 3D photography that works much like the View-Master toys, which have entertained children for 80 years. The vividness of old albumen images is stupendous. In many ways, these images, as well as those by Charles Le Morvan and his “Carte photographique et systematique de la lune” (Photographic and Systematic Chart of the Moon), are very similar to more recent Earth-based photographs of the moon.
Indeed, the moon as an object of early photography had much to recommend it: it is a bright object lit directly by the sun, it is more or less monochrome, and it is slow-moving. All aspects were highly favorable to early photography, with its necessity of light, its black-and-white medium, and the need for relatively long film exposure times.
As technology – in this case, especially space technology – allowed humans to get physically closer to the moon, more details would surface, such as images taken during the unmanned Ranger space missions of the mid-1960s. Moon rocks and the crusted lunar surface could be analyzed in greater detail, which would lead to the fleshing out of plans for successful lunar landings by humans. Finally, we see the iconic photo of Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and the U.S. flag planted on the moon, taken by Neil Armstrong.
The exhibition also includes photographs of human reactions, such as the awe of individuals watching the lunar landing on television in the front yard of Armstrong’s father’s house. Also displayed were women in Hawaiian leis greeting the 1969 three-person Apollo crew as heroes after they were returning home from their mission.
While very interesting, the exhibition is on the small side as the focus is primarily on the pictures themselves. Perhaps a bit more attention might have been paid to the influence of the moon’s image – and imagery – on human culture. “By the Light of the Silvery Moon,” for instance, a popular song from by 1909, was inspired by the moon’s imagery suggestive of romance. “Your silvery beams will bring love dreams,” read the lyrics which waxes sentimental on the waxing moon. A popular Doris Day film of 1953 featured the music as well.
On the other side of the cultural spectrum, the moon has also been associated with coldness – for example, by the moon goddess Diana in classical literature. “Chaste, stern, and fierce Diana,” the Roman poet Ovid called her. Indeed, a few halls down from the “Silvery Moon” exhibition is a unique Art Deco-style bronze sculpture “Diana and a Hound,” executed in 1925 by the American artist Paul Manship. In this reviewer’s mind, the linking of the two exhibitions in some way would enrich both.
Similarly, the exhibition starts with an introductory commentary that “fascination with the Moon endured into the 20th century, inhabiting the popular imagination through science fiction literature and films.” Nonetheless, no mention is made of how moon photography influenced or was influenced by, works such as Georges Méliès’ “A Trip to the Moon” (1902), Fritz Lang’s “Woman in the Moon” (1929), Josef von Báky’s “Münchhausen” (1943) or Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968). Inevitably the visual images of these cinematic presentations of the moon were significantly influenced by moon photography and, in turn, changed the public perception of the moon’s surface.
The National Gallery of Art’s exhibition “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” certainly addresses several interesting aspects of moon photography, and how accurate early images could be, even by today’s standards. The exhibition is also to be congratulated on showing some human reactions to the moon landing through photos. The show runs through Jan. 5, and this would seem to be an excellent weekend outing before the exhibition closes.