Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Earthrise: The Picture That Changed the World

Forty years ago tonight, an American serviceman took a photo from the window of his vehicle.

William Anders could not have imagined what that photo, developed from Kodachrome film and reproduced millions of times around the world, would mean to a billion people devastated by the most violent and destructive year in a quarter-century.

After Tet, and Martin, and Bobby, and Chicago, and Tricky Dick winning, it seemed nothing could rescue our spirits from the '68 Slough of Despond.

Then we saw it. For the first time in a million years of human existence, four billion years of the planet's existence, creatures from the surface of the earth got to see what our home - our only home - really looked like.

(More after the jump.)

The Apollo moon program resulted in a legacy of thousands of images - all of them of immense value as both scientific and documentary records. Yet 30 years after the event most of them speak only as images from history.

However one particular Apollo photograph transcends all others, an image so powerful and eloquent that even today it ranks as one of the most important photographs taken by anyone ever.

The colour photograph of Earthrise - taken by Apollo 8 astronaut, William A. Anders, December 24, 1968. Although the photograph is usually mounted with the moon below the earth, this is how Anders saw it. This photograph was taken during the Apollo 8 mission in December 1968, seven months before the first lunar landing ...

The 'Earthrise' photograph was not on the mission schedule and was taken in a moment of pure serendipity.

In order to take photographs of the far side of the moon the Apollo spacecraft had been rolled so that its windows pointed towards the lunar surface. During this time, the Moon was between the spacecraft and Earth, effectively cutting-off all radio communication with mission control. As Apollo 8 emerged from the far side on its fourth orbit, crew commander Frank Borman rolled the spacecraft so as to position its antennas for radio contact with mission control. Looking to the lunar horizon for reference he exclaimed - "Oh my God, look at that picture over there! Here's the Earth coming up!" ...

But regardless of which way the photograph was taken, the image shows our entire world as a small and blue and very finite globe, with our nearest celestial neighbour a desolate presence in the foreground.

US Nature photographer Galen Rowell has described this image as "the most influential environmental photograph ever taken".

In the LA TImes, Susan Salter Reynolds reviews the new book 'Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth' by Robert Poole, "A stirring account of the iconic Earth portrait taken by the crew of Apollo 8 - and its consequences."

On Christmas Day, in the New York Times, Archibald MacLeish wrote that the image of Earth would create a paradigm shift: "To see the earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold -- brothers who know that they are truly brothers."


In "Earthrise," Poole explores the evolution of a shift just when the enormity of the possibility of nuclear war threatened to shut down our collective imagination, just when we were most paralyzed by our ability to destroy the Earth. "One thing was obvious to all," Poole quotes biologist Lewis Thomas: "while the moon was 'dead as an old bone,' the Earth was 'the only exuberant thing in this part of the cosmos.'"

Earthrise is a revelation, and a promise, and a warning. This is who we are, this is what we can be, this is what is at stake.

Cross-posted at They Gave Us A Republic ....