The Apollo space program, which conducted 12 manned missions between 1961 and 1975, was the first to bring humans to the moon, and has become a cultural touchstone. The most famous mission, of course, is Apollo 11, when Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong became the first humans to walk on the surface of the moon. These scientific triumphs were mainly communicated to the world through imagery: photographs and film footage that made front-page and headline news around the world. MoMA has recently acquired a group of 51 of these photographs, from three of the Apollo missions: 46 color and black-and-white images from Apollo 11, one black-and-white photograph from Apollo 12, and four black-and-white photographs from Apollo 15.
In the 1970s, Conceptual photography by artists such as Ed Ruscha and John Baldessari upended traditional notions of skill and subject matter by using images whose straightforwardness seems to belie any notions of artistic skill or intention. In 1977, Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan published the artists’ book Evidence, comprising a selection of 59 photographs the artists had made after an exhaustive three-year search through the archives of the American government and U.S. corporations, especially departments and businesses tied to the military. These photographs were not taken as art, but as scientific and legal “evidence.” Mandel and Sultan’s recontextualization of the photos—removed from their explanatory reports and archives and put together in a sequence with unrelated images—stripped them of any practical function. In other words, the images’ very ability to give knowledge was removed, and their value as inherently truth-bearing was called into question.
Peter MacGill remembers being very struck by this book, and becoming interested in recontextualizing the famous photographs by NASA. MacGill was working at LIGHT Gallery, Inc., one of the first and most important galleries in New York focusing on photography. He went through thousands of photographs taken over the course of the Apollo program in the archive of the University of Arizona’s Science-Engineering Library, and chose a small group to exhibit at the gallery in 1979, 10 years after Aldrin and Armstrong’s moonwalk. In this space they were recast as fine art, and MacGill even made gelatin silver copy-prints to sell at LIGHT. Gene Thornton reviewed the exhibition for The New York Times, writing, “It takes a lot of nerve to present NASA photographs as works of art.” For much of photography’s early history it had fought for artistic stature by disavowing its reputation for pure objectivity and documentation, but with the advent of Conceptual art these images could be understood in a new way.
All 51 photographs acquired by MoMA were taken on a 70mm Hasselblad camera using different film stocks. MacGill has explained that he chose images with both scientific and aesthetic value, including astronauts’ snapshots of each other, lunar landscapes that provide information about the moon’s surface, and photographs of NASA equipment. These images join the single NASA image already in MoMA’s collection, View of Astronaut Footprint in Lunar Soil (1969), which was exhibited in Pictures of the Times: A Century of Photography from The New York Times in 1996 and included in the New York Times Collection gift in 2001. The Department of Photography has collected and exhibited vernacular photography from its earliest days; in 1937 Beaumont Newhall, the department’s first curator, put on display almost a century of photographic history in Photography 1839–1937, which included aerial, press, scientific, and sports images alongside fine-art photographs by Edward Steichen, László Moholy-Nagy, and Ansel Adams. With this new, exciting group of works the Museum can continue exhibiting the history of photography in all its artistic, technological, and cultural manifestations.
These photographs are among the more than 150 works recently added to MoMA’s collection by the Department of Photography. Over the coming weeks, we’ll be spotlighting more of these exciting new additions. Get updates and behind-the-scenes insights about new acquisitions here and on Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter using #MoMAcollects.