A Space Portfolio
A quarter century of U.S. space exploration has generaled a massive collection of photographs. Among many repetitious and poor quality images are found a few extraordinary gems. Three young men - Dennis Ivy, Paul Judice. and Owen Wilson — who founded 801 Editions, are currently working on a project to combine the best images from the NASA collection with the recollections of nearly three dozen people crucial to the space program, to provide what promises to he the most comprehensive and humanized portrait ever made of the years in space.
What they have planned is two oversized portfolios, together containing 24 matted dye-transfer prints and four platinum prints (each image is 10 1/2 inches square) in oversized boxes, each 18 by 22 inches. Each image will be accompanied by a brief recollection by a former astronaut, administrator, or NASA technician. These will be typeset by hand and printed on 120 pound paper.
There will also be a third component to the project, a bound book of black-and-white platinum prints and longer, more analytical essays. Former NASA Deputy Administrator Dr. Robert Seamans, for example, is writing about the Washington politics at the inauguration of the space program in the 1950s.
All three parts — the two portfolio boxes and the book - will be bound in leather and embossed in gold. They hope to have the project ready to unveil by early 1985, when the Museum of Fine Arts has scheduled an exhibition of the work.
Although the three arc not ready to go public with all the details of their project - there are still some negotiations going on — they did agree to tell Image the background of what they're calling the NASA portfolio. We joined Ivy, Judice and Wilson one evening at 801 Editions, their laboratory and headquarters contained in a wood frame house.
Like most huge projects, this one had an inspired beginning. It was the summer of 1982, and the three had been working on Peter Brown's image and text project, Seasons of Light. That portfolio was their first major project and they were wondering what they would do next.
"I came in one evening to print," recalls Dennis Ivy. "and when I arrived Owen and Paul were running around the house, screaming, because they had had this great idea, I asked 'What's going on?' And they said, 'NASA’And I said. Of course.’"
"We started with the astronauts," says Wilsun. "I had a friend who knew one astronaut. He phoned up Jack Lousma (of the Skylab and shuttle missions) and set up an appointment for us. We wanted to get a reaction from him, to see what he thought of the project from an astronaut's viewpoint. Since he liked it, we thought we wouldn't have any problem. We tried calling a couple of astronauts here in town, who turned us down flat. You can't just call somebody and say 'We have this great idea' because they've heard one million and one ideas, including the idea of astronaut pencils."
"We divided up the tasks of the project," Wilson says. "I took most of the responsibility for getting the text together. I started doing research to find out who could say what about what and generated a list of astronauts on the basis of that and started approaching them methodically, I went to visit each one, because there's no other way to do it. You can't do it by mail or phone. I took Peter Brown's project to show them what we were trying to do,"
"We developed a more and more impressive list. Now it's 28 people. Once you've got a list like that, you can get almost anyone to help you".
Sounds easy in retrospect, but Wilson traveled all over the country in early 1983, trying to get a core group of astronauts interested in the project. He became a master of delicacy and politics.
NASA could not prohibit the project, they say, because the photographs fall in the public domain. Officially they belong to the United Slates and can be used for anything but an endorsement. Access to the original transparencies, however, is tightly controlled.
"NASA ended up being much more cooperative than I ever would have expected." says Judice.
"One of the big pluses we had was this list of people," says Wilson. "We had two former administrators and the director of manned space flight and the director of unmanned space flight."
The project itself lent itself to cooperation," says Ivy. "It's good for the space program. It brings the public closer to the space program, which is something they have to do to get funding. And there's the museum show."
Judice adds, "Exotic media helped a whole lot, because many of the people who work in the photography lab or in the public affairs office came up through the Technicolor photo labs and made all these gorgeous films during the '30s and '40s, or were in the network news. When they see something like dye transfer and platinum, it really excites them. They have a certain amount of respect for that."
"Plus the idea of getting the astronauts to talk about things that are not often talked about," says Wilson. "Buzz Aldrin, for example, a few minutes after they landed on the moon, took communion. I think, although I won't know until I’ve actually seen it, that his text is going to revolve around that incident. Another one would be Stuart Roosa [Apollo 14] who's writing about the fatal fire in the Apollo program. Not in any kind of sensational way. But a lot of the stories haven't been told, simply because there is no outlet for them. And when you put that kind of information together with the pictures and get it from a whole sweep of astronauts from the very first all the way through to the current space shuttle, you build up a picture that no one's got."
None of the contributors are writers per se, says Wilson, so most of the stories and essays need polishing. Most are trained to write technical reports. Not only must Wilson cajole some 35 contributors to meet their deadlines, but he must also work with them to make the wording more vivid.
"Owen certainly had his work cut out," says Ivy. "These guys were trained not to be emotional. On space flights they were so busy taking care of being in space, that they really didn't have much time to have personal feelings about what they were doing,"
Some of the texts have surprised them, however. They mention the eloquence of the pad safety leader, a German who was reluctant to cooperate because he said he couldn't write English well enough. He was the last man the astronauts saw on Earth because he closed the bolts on the hatch. He wrote a piece about Alan Shepard's first flight from the view of the safety crew, and it was beautiful, Wilson says.
What makes this project special, they say, is that this may be the first and last time an undertaking of this type is possible.
Some of these people are getting old," says Wilson. "We figured, while we were at it, we'd do the job as well as we conceivably could. And that meant, in addition to astronaut photographs and texts, we'd carry viewpoints on sweeping events."
As of the first of April, about $120,000 had gone into the project. They expect to spend a third of a million dollars before the project is finished. Although they don’t know exactly how much each portfolio will sell for, they expect their costs to be about $4,000 each.
Wind River Press of Austin, run by David Holman, will do the printing of the text and the book production. Dermont-Duval, of Paris, is making the boxes and book covers. They will use calf skin — a goat skin is simply too small for the boxes - with gold leaf embossing. "One of the wonderful things is we're running into a lot of craftsmen." says Judice. "Not only are the writing and imagery going to be beautiful, but the format and the presentation will be too."
They also had some top-flight help in selecting the final few dozen photographs. Locally they asked Anne Tucker, curator of photography at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and photographer George Krause to help with the selection. They also flew in Roy Flukinger from the University of Texas and James Dean, who is the curator at the Smithsonian and used to run NASA's art program. The four of them received a preview set of slides to examine and, in February 1933, spent a day at the Rice Media Center reviewing the photographs.
"We had selected about 300 photographs from NASA's archives and had had type C prints made that they could look at," says Judice. These were selected after poring through catalogs and files.
"[The committee] picked, first of all, aesthetically pleasing images, dynamic images," he continues. "And they had to tie together in some sort of narrative sense. And if they had some sort of historical significance, that was neat too. They put together 22 images and had about 10 or 15 alternate images that we could pull from as we needed or to use as supplementary images in the show. It was interesting because you had people like Anne and Roy who have this curatorial background and would look at it as a (historical) body of work like Matthew Brady's or Atget's. I think when people look back at the imagery from the 20th century, they'll look at space pictures. That's really a pivotal point in civilization, George Krause was interested in images, what really jumped out at him. And Dean could do all that, plus he had a strong historical foundation to draw from. He questioned them a lot," Judice says.
"It's surprising, out of however many images that have been taken, how few there are that can really be considered to go in something like this," says Ivy. 'The reason (astronauts] even had a camera, for the most part, was for technical research. It turned out it was good for public relations, to finance the space program."
Indeed, so unnecessary were cameras once considered that, on Apollo II, there very nearly was no TV camera because of weight considerations. Flight engineers considered the camera among the most expendable items; only an administrative decision kept the camera onboard.
"A lot of the astronauts didn't like the idea of taking pictures," says Judice. "It's interesting to look through the reels, because on one mission the guy is just a hardcore scientist and he takes only the pictures he's supposed to take. And on another mission, maybe the guy is a bit of a poet and lakes a picture here and there. I think, as far as NASA is concerned, every picture is to document some kind of scientific experiment. One of the interesting things about the imagery is that the people weren't seeing the pictures. They had the camera fastened lo their chest pack and it had no view finder."
The Hassclblads used on the space missions had to be modified to work in a weightless environment, and special thin film was designed so it would not have to be frequently changed.
"You can see [in the photos] from Apollo 11 to Apollo 17 on the moon, there's no atmosphere, so the light has a slightly different color to it." says Judice. "They were fiddling around with different film emulsions to get the color balance right. They didn't quite get it right until Apollo 17. So the last roll had good color balance, but the early ones were off."
Up to this point, continues Judice, he, Ivy and Wilson hadn't even considered using NASA's originals from which to make their prints.
"I called and asked to talk to whomever could make the decision," recalls Judice. "There was a fellow who was in charge of public affairs. I went to see him and we chatted for a bit. And he said, let's go over to the photo building. I was a little annoyed because I had been hoping they would all leave so I could talk to whomever else I was supposed to. So he asked me to sit down and he introduced me and as he did, everybody in the room pulled out a pad of paper and put a pen to it and looked at me. At that point I realized they had taken the project seriously.""
NASA okayed their request to use the originals, but Ivy and Judice had a sudden tremor of nervousness: They didn't even want to touch the transparencies, let alone bring them back to Houston to their lab. The responsibility terrified them. They ended up paying for a technician's time to handle the film, including getting it out of the freezer and putting it in the negative carrier and en-larger for them. They copied it at NASA.
The most valuable film is kept in a freezer at about 0 degrees, explains Judice. When needed, it's taken out and left 24 hours in the 50 degree cool room, then brought out for a few more hours to come to room temperature.
"A lot of these cans hadn't been opened in 20 years," says Ivy.
"They had some surprises," says Judice. "Some of the film was damaged or cracked from age. I think the vault is fairly new. Recently, they began to realize how valuable some of these things were. But some of the old images are in incredibly good shape, really bright and the colors are saturated."
Only the in-flight images are at Johnson Space Center, says Judice. Everything taken at launches is at Cape Canaveral. Files are also kept in Washington, D.C., and California. There is no catalog system to speak of, he says. Hundreds of thousands of pictures were taken for things like map making. "The seemingly haphazard arrangement has its beginnings in the Cold War. It's plain we were in this race, trying to beat the Russians to the moon. And nobody could be concerned about how they were going to file the images." says Judice.
The first showing of the NASA portfolio will be at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, tentatively scheduled for early 1985. Later that year the work may appear in a show at the Bibliotheque Nationale, in Paris.