A tale in two photographs

This past Friday, July 20, marked the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. As a commemoration, The Atlantic‘s Alexis Madrigal posted a set of photographs from the entire mission, from conception and planning to launch to landing and return. There are two photographs from this set I’d like to highlight, because they hit me in a powerful and unexpected way.

Growing up in the 80s and 90s, I was pretty spoiled by a wealth of detailed images from space. I remember devouring the photographs in National Geographic each time Voyager 2 encountered on of the outer planets for the first time. Then, as now, satellite photographs of earth were an unremarkable, everyday thing, as routine as the weather report on the news.

I’d seen the picture of the earth rising over the moon’s horizon before, and I’ve always thought it was cool, but it never really blew my mind. In fact, I was, when I was younger, more fascinated by the episode or two of the original Star Trek where the Enterprise shows the Earth on its viewscreen. The image was immediately unreal, globe-like, and it took me a minute or two to realize that it was primarily because the image was of a world without clouds, which I knew instantly and instinctively to be wrong because I’d seen the real thing.

However, I did finally get that moment of wonder from Madrigal’s visual narrative, not so much from an individual image as from the juxtaposition of two otherwise fairly unremarkable photos.

The first is a picture from space of Mexico and the American southwest.

Earth, near

None of the photos Madrigal posts are captioned, but the placement of this picture gives the impression of being a first look back soon after launch. It’s a beautiful picture, but not extraordinary, probably even at the time. We’d been in space before, and seen the Earth from above. It’s the sort of picture that years ago someone of a dreamy bent might have observed is free from political boundaries, but what’s really striking is the compressed frame.

The second picture is a little bit different.

moving away

The first photo is a close picture, at least in cosmic terms, but the second picture, in this context, is a record of motion. It’s a look back from farther away, far enough to see the full globe against the darkness of space. By placing the photographs in a line, in relation as part of a narrative, the distance became for me for the first time part of a journey, and put me next to the human being who activated the shutter, far from home and getting farther.

Apollo 11’s trip to the moon is a feat that was equalled a handful of times, but still, more than 40 years later, never surpassed. Within my lifetime at least, it may never be. (I should have a lot of time left. I’d love to be proven wrong.)

The Apollo misions are still a unique part of human history. The moon is still as far as we’ve ever stepped. Take a look at the pictures again.

And thank you, Mr. Madrigal, for the assembly, and the reminder of exactly what narrative can do.

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