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In Gallery 22, encompassing two small rooms in the National Gallery of Art’s West Building, is more than 100 years of moon documentation.
The exhibition is By the Light of the Silvery Moon: A Century of Lunar Photographs, and it is mighty despite its compact space. The showcase is fundamentally about how humans have always looked to the skies, their curiosities set on the bright celestial body we see at night—Earth’s natural satellite. It reveals how we understand the cosmos, and how we understand ourselves in it.
“As the brightest and biggest object in our night sky, as something that wanes and waxes and that appears and disappears with near cyclical regularity, the moon has fascinated humanity for centuries on centuries,” says Sarah Greenough, senior curator and head of the National Gallery of Art’s department of photographs.
Diane Waggoner, who curates 19th-century photographs at the National Gallery of Art, put the exhibition together, and the gallery timed its opening with the week of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. Waggoner set out to present some 50 works from the 19th century to the Space Age in the 1960s in an exhibition that blends art and science.
From wall to wall, By the Light of the Silvery Moon is an enchanting selection of lunar photographs. The first room of the exhibition is dedicated to the 19th and early 20th centuries; the second room chronicles the 1960s and the lead-up to the 1969 Apollo 11 mission.
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“Photography was introduced to the world in 1839,” Waggoner says, “and literally the idea of photographing the moon went hand in hand with that announcement because it was announced publicly at the French Académie des Sciences by a man named Francois Arago, who was an astronomer himself.” In his speech, she says, he spoke of this wonderful new invention—the daguerreotype—and how it would lead to being able to make new discoveries about the moon.
The earliest moon photography could not convey many details of its surface, only its shape. It wasn’t until the 1850s that photographers could capture lucid shots of the moon, Waggoner says. The moon is in constant motion, making capturing it back then more complex.
Two amateur astronomers, Warren De La Rue and Lewis Rutherfurd, solved this problem by tinkering with technology, and their work is on view, including De La Rue’s beautiful late 1850s stereoscopic glass transparency of the full moon and Rutherfurd’s 1860s albumen prints showing lunar phases. Displayed with the stereoscopic photo are a pair of stereo viewers, enabling visitors to find the right resolution on the image, which makes the moon pop out.
One of the biggest exhibition highlights is the suite of Charles Le Morvan’s rich photogravures from Carte photographique et systématique de la lune (1914). The photogravures were Morvan’s attempt to systematically map the moon’s entire visible surface—and the gallery massively splays them out on a single wall with that intended effect in mind.
The most awe-inspiring display in the exhibition is the set of glass stereographs from the Apollo 11 mission. Taken by astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the stereographs show close-up views of 3-inch square areas of the moon’s surface. On the display is a viewing glass, allowing visitors to look down and see the lunar surface in extreme, stunning detail. Seeing the lunar surface that closely is magical, and likely the closest anyone who isn’t an astronaut can get to seeing the real thing.
While many photographs of the moon alone are breathtaking, some of the snapshots depicting humans are just as warmly received. The iconic NASA images from the Apollo 11 mission, like the astronauts planting the American flag and Aldrin’s footprint in the lunar soil, are also on view. In addition, there are images that capture the aftermath of Apollo 11, such as a gelatin silver print of the stateside celebration when the mission’s three astronauts came home safely, and a chromogenic print of the astronauts smiling at their wives while in quarantine upon returning to Earth.
Armstrong’s photos of Aldrin, particularly the shot with his own reflection in the astronaut’s helmet, still deeply resonate. One of the most profound images in the Apollo 11 selection of the exhibition displays an American soldier in Vietnam, holding a gun in one hand and a small transistor radio in the other, as he tries to keep up with Apollo 11 news while wading waist deep into a delta.
NASA’s “Earthrise across Mare Smythii” is a showstopper: a photo of the Earth from the surface of the moon during the mission, the deep black and twinkling stars of outer space surrounding it. It’s an image that can stick with you long after you leave the display, and worthy of being mounted in any museum.
With this showcase, the gallery invites visitors to think of the moon in terms of art. Documenting the moon is a scientific endeavor, but as it’s illustrated so well in this exhibition, that endeavor can also provide seriously moving art and aesthetics. Like the moon above, the National Gallery of Art’s By the Light of the Silvery Moon is worth seeing up close.
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