Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Camera as Cultural Phenomenon

If you stop and think about it, the camera is a tool that has a huge impact on modern human cultures. My favorite example of this is the iconic photograph made by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders on Christmas eve, 1968. Known simply as, "Earthrise," the photograph is credited with giving birth to the environmental movement to protect our planet. (You can hear the astronauts' awe here.) Anders described his reaction to this unexpected scene this way:

'Earthrise' courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute "There are basically two messages that came to me. One of them is that the planet is quite fragile. It reminded me of a Christmas tree ornament. But the other message to me, and I don't think this one has really sunk in yet, is that the Earth is really small. We're not the center of the universe; we're way out in left field on a tiny dust mote, but it is our home and we need to take care of it."

Earth from Saturn photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
Photo of Earth (center right) from neighborhood of Saturn
Well, now NASA has done it again, in an even bigger way. Photographing the Earth from the moon was one thing, but photogaphing the Earth from Saturn is another order of magnitude on the "Wow!" scale.

On July 19th of this year, the space probe Cassini photographed our little planet from 753,000 miles beyond Saturn, and a mere 898.414 million miles away from home. How's that for location photography? I'd read about NASA's plans months earlier and was eagerly awaiting the image, but for now we just have a low-resolution version to keep us happy while they assemble the stitch of 323 images.

Meanwhile, NASA also did something else that I think was very wise. With those on the political right wanting to slash NASA's budget even more than it's already suffered, NASA has focused much more energy on public outreach to keep the general public informed and involved. One small part of this was having us Earth people wave at Cassini during the July photo shoot. And From those 1,400-plus images, NASA has assembled the "Earth Waving at Saturn" photo.

Photography that started a cultural movement. Photography to make science make sense to the general public. Photography as a tool to push back against political ignorance and arrogance. Photography as a valuable tool on a global scale. How's that for impact?

'Earth Waving at Saturn' courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

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