Tuesday, February 5, 2019

The Importance of Visuals

It is received wisdom, well understood, that the astronaut, shot into space and seeing the earth whole for the first time, will be moved to speak heroic words of unity and beauty.

"It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small."
-- Neil Armstrong

"The view of the Earth from the Moon fascinated me -- a small disk, 240,000 miles away. . . . Raging nationalistic interests, famines, wars, pestilence don't show from that distance."
-- Frank Borman

and so on.

The conceit is that seeing the earth, whole, as it were, generates this epiphany. Photographs from space are brought back, paired with these quotes, intending to elicit the same response from those of us unlucky enough, or lucky enough, not to have been shot into space.

Blue Marble, 1972, Apollo 17.

Earthrise, 1968, William Anders. Apollo 8.

Galen Rowell called Earthrise, if wikipedia is to be believed, "the most influential environmental photograph ever taken," and author Robert Poole claims it as the spiritual nascence of the environmental movement, saying “it is possible to see that Earthrise marked the tipping point, the moment when the sense of the space age flipped from what it meant for space to what it means for Earth.” The first claim is absurd, Silent Spring was published 4 years earlier, but hold on to the quotation.

Moving onwards, here are a couple other quotations:

"Up here, you wonder why we're so different, when the land is the same. You think: we're all children of the same mother planet, who says we're different?"

"I have seen the earth ... turning below me like a fantastic ball, the seas like blue glass in the sun or lashed into grey storm-peaks ... and the land green with life ... and the cities of the world sparkling ... and the people."
-- Reverdy McMillen

Perhaps you are wondering, slightly, who the hell Reverdy McMillen is, and you would be, it turns out, quite justified. Rev McMillen is a fictional character, the first man to orbit the earth, in a short story called "The Cave of Night." I am going to, shortly, spoil that story, so if you're interested you should go find a copy now and read it. We're well past any reasonable expectations, though, the story was published in 1955. Two years before humanity would launch anything at all in to orbit, six before a human would orbit even once.

So, for starters, we see that the idea of the heroic epiphany predates, by quite a lot, the actual heroic epiphany. Alan Shepherd, Neil Armstrong, Frank Borman, William Anders, perhaps none of them read James Gunn's story, but they sure as hell knew and worked with people who had. Gunn may not have (probably didn't?) even originate the idea, these things just sort of turn up after all.

The point is, the idea had been in play since at least 1955 that seeing the earth all-at-once from space was supposed to produce these visions of unity, and the fragility of life, of the special nature of the planet. These guys being shot into space cannot possibly have escaped these ideas. We have no real way of knowing how much scripting of these quotes occurred, but certainly the answer is "more than none."

Scripted or no these guys knew beforehand what emotional response was expected to happen when they saw the planet whole.

Here comes the spoiler. It gets better, it turns out.

Even inside James Gunn's story these quotes are not spontaneous, they are scripted. A recording, in fact. There is no man in space, there wasn't enough money. The whole thing is a setup to pry loose money for a real manned mission to rescue the supposedly stranded lone astronaut. The implication is that the dramatic failure to rescue the fellow does indeed lead to unity, to all manner of good things (not least: tons of money for manned space exploration).

So, not only so we have the idea of that this visual should produce an epiphany appearing in 1955, but we have the idea that also, quoting these epiphanies is great marketing. If this did not become NASA's playbook, I cannot imagine why not. In fact, it clearly was NASA's playbook, we just don't know whether they came up with it themselves, or whether James Gunn invented it.

Ok, so what about the visuals? I promised something about the importance of visuals, after all.

Well, here we see played out one more time this theme: visuals, it turns out, follow the idea at least as often as they lead it. The notion that it was the visuals that turned the tide of public opinion leading to the end of the US involvement in Vietnam turns out to be not quite true, and we see the same sort of result here.

The visuals were no doubt emotion-producing, but the epiphany and the basic nature of the heroic quotations was worked out well in advance.

The Earthrise and Blue Marble photo certainly support the sentiments that we ascribe to them, but to suppose that they in any way are the origin of them is false. The sentiment arises first, and the visual is found to support it.

Is it propaganda? Marketing? Or simply the way people work?

I suppose it's all three, isn't it?


  1. Great post Andrew. It's completely plausible that the astronauts were carefully prepared to say certain things.

    You point to something I think is really important in this post. I don't think we have a good understanding of how photographs shape the way people think and behave. Instead, we have a bunch of assumptions about this that haven't really been seriously challenged. As photographers we like to think that our pictures can "define" moments (and by extension how people who see the picture think and behave). But, as your example shows nicely, it's way more complicated than that.

    I saw Edward Burtynsky's "Anthropocene" show recently. There are some interesting parallels to Earthrise. Burtynsky has made a career out of showing people things they might never have seen before (Earthrise moments), based on non-typical camera angles (often working from helicopters or booms), large and dramatic scales and vistas, and access to areas that are generally off limits to ordinary people. Anthropocene brings together a collection of these kinds of pictures -- printed very large and very well, and embedded in lots of nifty multi-media, immersive technology.

    What struck me the most though was the general ambiguity. I’d guess that he and his collaborators think the large scale industry projects and activities on display were “bad”. However, included in the group was a large solar farm, which maybe was supposed to be good even though it shared the bigness of other things that were (probably) supposed to be bad. It also wasn't clear to me what ordinary people looking at these pictures would think, could think, or were supposed to think. For many viewers, these pictures may have been the first time they'd seen these things from those angles. I think the plan was that seeing the pictures would cause people to rethink their lifestyle, their resource use, their energy use, their environmental footprint... Unfortunately, the underlying issues are so complex that a picture on its own, or even with a bit of explanatory text, can't possibly do that.

    Anyway, I'm not picking on Burtynsky here. Kudos to him and his collaborators for trying to do "something" about the human impact on the environment. I use this example because it made me question how much we can expect from photographs when it comes to changing minds (which I think is what Burtynsky and his collaborators wanted to do). My hunch is that a better understanding of exactly how much we can expect from certain kinds of pictures used in specific ways is necessary for that kind of thing to have the desired effect. That may bring photographers and photography down a peg or two, but we can also build on that better understanding.

    1. I had the opportunity to see this show when my wife and I went to the AGO on a "MAP" pass from the Toronto Public Library in December.

      However the AGO went against prior convention (in our experience), and would not allow admission to the show on the MAP pass without an additional fee of ~ten bucks each.

      I wanted to see the show, actually it was why we went to the AGO on that occasion, and we could easily afford the extra charge, but I was angered by the charge and the fact that this show which ought to be considered as somehow impactful on humanity would be denied to folks who might not be able to afford that extra fee.

      This is the second time in recent memory I have felt that a major photography exhibit at the AGO has been morally compromised, the first was when I discovered that a SebastiĆ£o Salgado show on wilderness areas was co-sponsored by Vale mining (then "Vale Inco"). Yes, that Vale mining.

  2. I draw your attention to the final stanzas of Chaucer's "Troilus and Criseyde" (ca. 1385), where, after Troilus is slain and his spirit rises up through the heavenly spheres:

    And down from there he spies
    This little spot of earth that with the sea
    Is embraced, and begins to despise
    This wretched world, and hold it vanity
    Compared with the true felicity
    That is in heaven above. And at the last
    Down where he was slain, his gaze he cast.

    And in himself he laughed at the woe
    Of those who wept for his death now past

    (a modern translation, obvs).

    Nothing new under the sun... Though I do think those photos had a serious impact, not least when used on the cover of "The Last Whole Earth Catalogue".


  3. I remember a short bit of a TV documentary to do with the Korean War. MacArthur was getting reports of large numbers of soldiers massing on the frontier but MacArthur was not inclined to agree with his observers. (So why have them?) At this point in the documentary, they show MacArthur in an airplane looking out the window and the sequence seemed to suggest that because he couldn't see these amassed soldiers himself, then they obviously couldn't be there and his observers were wrong. Turns out they were right. Whether this is an example of someone not seeing order in chaos or a case of self-esteem gone hog-wild crazy is for someone else to analyze.
    There is another example from back in the 1950s or 1960s where Hydro-Quebec, the government-owned hydro power utility in the Province of Quebec that wielded a LOT of influence, wanted to build a hydro dam on a section of the Jacques Cartier river in an area that had been destined to be a large wilderness park. There were lots of protests about the hydro company running roughshod over already agreed on plans, but the government minister in charge refused to listen to any of the protests or his own departmental advisors, who had all participated in the decision to set aside areas for this large park. (So why have them?) Anyway, the minister took a ride in an airplane and did a flyover of some of this beautiful area and when he returned he told the hydro company to find someplace else to dam.
    So these public bodies, military and governmental, are tasked with determining something, acquire the expertise, invest the time and effort into studying the questions, and in the end some arrogant self-important windbag gets to ignore them all.
    So when people who go into space come back saying that seeing something with their own eyes changes their perception is both believable and pathetic stupid.

    1. I recall Quebec Hydro (I think?) finding that they had massively overbuilt, and getting caught literally dumping excess power into the US grid.

  4. My memory about that is vague. It's in the nature of building large infrastructure that you overbuild, that's not a fault, it's good planning. Hydro-Quebec did/does sell a lot of power to the neighbouring US grids and I remember a lot of back and forth about whether they were charging enough, or too much, or too little, but by the time that kind of discussion reaches the media, I think it's mostly spin anyway, having mostly to do with an upcoming election, of which there is always one on the way.
    Now that public utilities are at least partly "deregulated", I have no idea what any of it means.