If you were a visiting dignitary to the U.S. in the 1970s, you might have received a printed photograph shot by an astronaut; perhaps the famous Earthrise, the haunting 1968 photo that depicted the Earth from the Moon, printed in one of NASA’s photographic laboratories. Over time, your souvenir would have yellowed and aged; perhaps you stuck it in a drawer, or passed it along to your grandkids, or threw it out with old papers. After all, the value of a decades-old print wouldn’t seem clear.
You’d be surprised to find out, then, that today your forgotten scrap might net thousands of dollars on the market. (A print of Earthrise sold at auction last year for about $9,200). As these stellar photos have aged and become rare in our era of digital archives, NASA’s physical printed images have become objets d’art
Beginning in 2011, a series of major auctions have collected these vintage prints for buyers. MoMA, meanwhile, recently acquired 51 original printed photos from three different Apollo missions.
Many of them bear the marks of the NASA center that produced them, soon after the film returned to Earth, along with details about the print number and other details about their provenance. Fewer bear a purple “press” stamp. which means they were produced for external use. We shall note these are different than, say, a reprint signed by an astronaut. The presence of a signature on the face of a vintage photograph would reduce both its financial and aesthetic value.
The shift from scientific document to high art is one that traces the outlines of modern art itself. Many of these images were shot for scientific purposes, without any obvious artistic intent. Just as artists of the midcentury were pushing that definition of what constitutes “art,” reframing these prints as fine art asks us to rethink why we assign certain values on some objects and not others.
If nothing else, it reminds us that we’re living in an era that romanticizes the midcentury of American history–from fashion, to design, to space travel. Being able to explore the Universe on your desktop or browse thousands of archival images online is cool–but these images are tangible links to an age when a simple photograph could still awe us.