“The NASA archive is a world treasure and obviously what I’ve done is reframed that world treasure into the photo-novel I wanted to build. With 32,000 pictures, you can tell any story you want. Pictures are context dependent. So I told a tale, and I told it my way.” — Michael Light
When NASA officials and employees held a celebration in Washington, D.C. on July 20, 1999 to mark the 30th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s first footsteps on the moon, it was an openly gay man who commanded everyone’s attention.
As astronauts Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin looked on, along with NASA Chairman Dan Goldin, Chief Historian Roger Launius, NASA staff and reporters from around the globe, 36-year-old San Francisco-based fine-art photographer Michael Light addressed them for the bulk of an hour, running through a series of slide images from his new, phenomenally well-received “photo novel,” Full Moon, a lavish photo-art book published simultaneously in North America and Europe this fall by Knopf and Jonathan Cape. In the process, Light managed to do what no one since the golden age of the Apollo missions had achieved: to show the lunar surface in a fresh light, stirring people’s imaginations, reinvigorating even the astronauts’ sense of wonder at the alien landscape they had trod so long ago.
Just two days following his NASA engagement, Light was in London for the opening of his Full Moon exhibition at the prestigious Hayward Gallery of modern art on the South Bank of the River Thames. Many notables from the UK art world attended, as did David R. Scott, commander of the highly successful 1971 Apollo 15 moon mission. Those in attendance were agog the lunar images arrayed on the gallery walls. The Sunday London Times gave the exhibition a glowing review.
“The NASA archive is a world treasure,” declares Light, “and obviously what I’ve done is reframed that world treasure into the photo-novel I wanted to build.”
When Light gave a one-time-only walk-through of the show, Scott turned up in the crowd; Light, taking note of the esteemed explorer’s presence, invited Scott to participate in a conversation about the images. Thus began a crowd-mesmerizing give-and-take about the moon’s topography and exploration – an engaging off-the-cuff exchange about camera positioning, light-and-dark contrasts, soil color, temperature differences, textures, distances, heights, landforms and otherworldly aesthetics.
Full Moon emerged from the sensibilities of a gay man enamored with but critical of frontier mythology, of wilderness landscapes sought out by explorers, primarily young men bent on testing their mettle, proving themselves in contests against raw nature, and in so doing altering irrevocably the territories they penetrate. “It’s an arena of male bonding,” says Light.
Most remarkable in all this was the degree to which the two men, Light and Scott, saw eye to eye, despite being from different generations and vastly different backgrounds. They engaged in banter like old friends and fellow explorers. Scott clearly appreciated what Light, as an artist and outsider, not of the NASA fold, had done in revealing to the world the first-rate landscape and exploration photography produced during the NASA missions. Light had arrayed moon shots as never before, determined to tell the story of the moon’s exploration as he saw it, using the astronauts’ photographs to do so – photos that NASA and the public had long since disregarded and relegated to obscurity, unaware of their artistic value.
Displayed on the Hayward’s walls, in a series of interconnected rooms, were huge, black-metal framed, richly detailed and eerily beautiful images of the lunar landscape – all digitally reproduced from master dupes Light had spent more than four years sorting through in NASA’s vaults. There, untouched for decades, lay some 32,000 photographic images from the Apollo missions, none of them taken by landscape photographers, yet revealing landscapes in ways Ansel Adams or, more appropriately, contemporary disturbed-landscape photographer Richard Mishrach could appreciate. The Full Moon images depict what happens to a virgin terrain when men come along with their tools, prodding and poking, sifting and sorting, scarring with their tire tracks, littering with their abandoned machines.
The public at large had seen but a handful of such images, the select ones endlessly recycled in Time, Life, Newsweek and countless other mainstream publications, and many of those images were of poor quality, being third, fourth, or fifth generation duplicates, if not worse. Until Light came along and negotiated with NASA to take the master dupes off-site, no one had seen them, much less replicated them with high-resolution digital scanners. And certainly no one had thought to cull from the archival photographs a book as bold and captivating as Full Moon.
“The NASA archive is a world treasure,” declares Light, “and obviously what I’ve done is reframed that world treasure into the photo-novel I wanted to build. With 32,000 pictures, you can tell any story you want. Pictures are context dependent. So I told a tale, and I told it my way.”
Full Moon, which utilizes photographs from all of the Apollo missions to convey one archetypal journey to the moon’s surface and back, emerged from the sensibilities of a gay man enamored with but critical of frontier mythology, of wilderness landscapes sought out by explorers, primarily young men bent on testing their mettle, proving themselves in contests against raw nature, and in so doing altering irrevocably the territories they penetrate.
“It’s an arena of male bonding,” says Light, “permeated with homoeroticism, guys guaging themselves against each other.”
However, he hastens to add, “the politics of my work, and the largest issues at hand, are not particularly homo or hetero. What is part of my identity as a gay man is my whole esthetic sensibility. It’s very hard for me to describe why I’m attracted to certain textural images, like the skins of planets.”
Nonetheless, he gives it the old college try: “As an artist, I’m interested in the line between the built and the unbuilt world, the edges of civilization, the point where people begin to think about things much larger than themselves, where self-involvement and narcissism begin to fall away, where we really begin to see the sublime. Vast deserts, or outer space, or the unknown, or the ineffable, or religion, or whatever, versus the tiny human presence, continues to fascinate me.”
Light found a bit of that sublime mystery at Burning Man in Nevada last year, where far out on the desert playa, away from crowded Black Rock City (the temporary encampment of some 10,000 artists and freaks), he installed his Full Moon images for the first time publicly, arraying them end to end, face-up on the seemingly lunar landscape of dried, crusty mud, bordered in the night by tiny white lights, pointing off into infinity between two parallel mountain ridges, looking for all the world like an alien landing strip. People drawn to the lights from far away encountered a bizarre but powerful array of moon pictures, just discernable through a thin coating of playa dust. Overhead, someone had installed an eerily-lit alien spacecraft suspended from giant, nearly invisible helium balloons. When the full moon itself appeared from over a ridge, the total effect of Light’s installation was stunning, causing people to sit for long periods beside the row of photographs, meditating on their metaphysical meanings, or perhaps flying to the moon in their minds.
“My overarching desire in Full Moon was to go there as a landscape photographer,” says Light, who since graduating in the late-’80s from Amherst and then obtaining his MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute has focused primarily on unusual landscape images (his earlier photo-novel Ranch, published by the renowned art-house TwelveTrees Press, depicted a working ranch in Santa Barbara belonging to the family of Edie Sedgwick, saint of the überhip Warhol coterie). “The best way I could do that, since Apollo’s not running any more and I’m not an astronaut, was via the photographs. So when I edited, I edited for a sense of immediacy. I wanted to be there, right down in the dirt. I’m trying to get as close as I can get, putting a viewer right there, straight near the crotch in that classic image of Dave Scott, tool-making, exploring man, with that looming rock-collection tong.”
When asked to hypothesize on whom, if he were able to go to the moon, he would choose to accompany him, Light pauses on only briefly before replying, in his most Hemingwayesque tone (Light grew up in Mauntauk, at the tip of Long Island, enjoying a sort of Great Gatsby meets The Old Man And The Sea lifestyle): “I would want somebody who was really, really rock solid. I would want an engineer, test pilot, unflappable all-American hero so that while I lose my mind and be all overwhelmed by the intensity of it all, somebody is there attending to whatever needs attending.”
And does he know anyone fitting this description?
“I wouldn’t mind going there with Dave Scott. That would be a dream come true, because Apollo 15 has the largest bunch of photographs in my book, and that mission was the first of the big independent scientific missions, and it remains the mission to my eyes that had the most spectacular and insanely beautiful landscapes.”
Moreover, he adds with a wink: “And Dave, you’ve got to hand it to the guy. He’s the nicest guy, for one thing, and he’s probably, what, 70 by now? He’s a really handsome 70-year-old.”
This article originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter.
For online information about Full Moon, surf www.projectfullmoon.com