Much more than only a paper moon
NEW YORK — Are you mooned out? The 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the moon is over. There have been documentaries and exhibitions and books and even an episode of “Antiques Roadshow.” Time to move on to the next big anniversary: Cue the Woodstock footage. Except that the moon isn’t going anywhere. It stays up in the sky, as magical and magnificent and mysterious as ever. To see it is still to wonder and marvel. In that sense, it’s not unlike the experience of looking at art.
The lunar and the aesthetic join forces in “Apollo’s Muse: The Moon in the Age of Photography.” Splendidly sprawling, it runs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through Sept. 22. Not a bad working definition of sprawl, museum-wise, might be any show that manages to include Galileo, racy postcards, Walter Cronkite, and Robert Rauschenberg — and gets away with it.
“Apollo’s Muse” gets away with it. The exhibition consists of well over 200 items, not just photographs but also etchings, paintings, film clips, news footage, lunar globes, cameras, and a dress. Harry Gordon designed the last item. It’s a sleeveless A-line, made of paper, with a rocket-print design. Can you get more ’60s? Cape Canaveral meets Carnaby Street.
The first thing one sees is a set of 48 photogravures, taken by Charles Le Morvan between 1899 and 1909, that show the phases of the moon. Twenty-four each flank the entrance to the show. They announce what the rest of “Apollo’s Muse” testifies to: the interrelationship between documentation and beauty, science and art, astronomy and artistry. That last interrelationship takes multiple forms, by the way. Have you ever noticed what beautiful objects telescopes are? The one in the show, a 4-inch refracting model, c. 1800, certainly is. Beautiful, too, in a very different way, are the products of telescopes. The late-19th-century transparencies of the moon taken at the Lick Observatory, in California, are like portals to a place beyond the imagination.
The moon and photography share a special affinity. Photography requires light. The moon does, too. That is, without light it still matters, and matters a lot. Just check your tide charts. But it is not the visual glory that it is when reflecting the light of the sun. So in that sense, both depend on light. In addition, with its waxing and waning, the moon is its own developing process: the night as celestial darkroom. There’s even a historical connection. When François Arago, an astronomer, told the French Parliament in 1839 that what we now know as photography had been invented, he specifically cited its suitability for helping map the moon’s surface. Within months, John William Draper, an American, took what is now the oldest surviving photographic image of the moon. The camera and selenography, the study of the moon’s surface and physical features, were off and running — or, rather, recording.
The ubiquity of the moon in the nighttime sky has a parallel in the ubiquity of NASA images in the collective conscious. In both cases, there is a taking for granted that is almost existentially criminal. The day the miraculous becomes matter of fact is the day we begin to die. One of the many virtues of “Apollo’s Muse” is how it refreshes so many images that long ago became part of our seen-but-not-noticed visual memory. Neil Armstrong’s photograph of Buzz Aldrin (with Armstrong’s reflection visible on Aldrin’s visor) — Aldrin’s bootprint on the moon’s surface — Earth’s moonrise, as shot by astronaut William Anders from Apollo 8: Astonishing then, they may be even more astonishing now, knowing as we have come to that the moon is something mankind has left behind rather than reached beyond.
A gallery across the hall consists of artworks relating to Apollo 11 and the moon, nearly all made in the years since the landing. They’re not so much a summing up as an opening out. Among them is Garry Winogrand’s famous shot of people watching the launch of Apollo 11. At the center of the image is a woman, oblivious to the Saturn V rocket’s trajectory, photographing Winogrand photographing her. So he’s oblivious, too. As we can now appreciate, they represented the future, and the onlookers gazing skyward represented the past.
“Among Others: Photography and the Group,” at the Morgan Library & Museum, makes you think differently about photographs. Even better, it makes you look at them differently. It runs through Aug. 18.
The basic premise is simple: what happens when the frame contains multiple subjects. The answers can get complicated. A posed portrait of Queen Victoria with her relations differs from a snapshot of a human pyramid, except for how it doesn’t. Art Kane’s “Great Day in Harlem” photo, from 1958, hangs with a 1998 hip-hop restaging. What’s the relationship between inspiration and repetition?
Even the biggest frame can enclose only so much space. And the “frame” can become multiple. Examples here include a high school yearbook, cigarette cards (popular in the early 20th century), a wastebasket (its surface covered with portraits of US presidents), and Mike Mandel’s marvelous set of “baseball cards” in which the ballplayers are well-known photographers.
Works by famous photographers figures in the show: a family portrait by August Sander, an Edward S. Curtis grouping of Native Americans, Robert Frank’s “Trolley.” Richard Avedon’s photo essay on power in America, “The Family,” offers an extra bit of ex-post-facto revelation. When Rolling Stone ran it in 1976, the portrait of Rosemary Woods, Richard Nixon’s former secretary, appeared next to that of W. Mark Felt — whom we now know to be Watergate leaker Deep Throat. Follow the money? Sure, but don’t forget to follow the photograph, too.
APOLLO’S MUSE: The Moon in the Age of Photography
At Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave., New York, through Sept. 22. 212-535-7710, www.metmuseum.org
AMONG OTHERS: Photography and the Group
At Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Ave., New York, through Aug. 18. 212-685-0008, www.themorgan.org