Apollonian quest

Finding ways of expressing the experience of being out in space is far from easy, but Yolanda Zappaterra is impressed by an exhibition in which astronauts provide words to go with images of the Apollo missions of the late 1960s and early 1970s

Imagine you’re on the surface of the moon. Faced with the sheer monumental space of space, the incredible beauty of the earth seen from it, and the general vast scale of the universe, we’d all like to imagine that we could come up with something more poetic and memorable than Michael P Anderson’s banal ‘It’s a great view from here. I’m having the time of my life’, or Alan Bean’s prosaic ‘The moon is very rugged’. Something maybe along the lines of Neil Armstrong’s immortal line, ‘That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind’ – without the balls-up of the missing ‘a’, of course.

Taken together, the general inability of Apollo mission quotes to express the experience adequately reinforce the idea that images have an advantage over words in creating an emotional, sensual response in the viewer, giving truth to the old adage that pictures are worth a thousand words. For we all know the emotional punch packed by images of the earth from space, and those of us old enough to recall the Apollo missions remember not the words, but the images – the stations docking, the rockets re-entering the earth’s atmosphere, Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin et al bouncing around the moon’s surface… But what happens when you put the two together? Do words diminish the images or can they add another quality to create something that’s more than the sum of its parts?

It’s a question addressed at a new exhibition, Images of Apollo, opening in London this week. This selection of large-format Apollo mission images is just a small part of a huge collection owned by Leslie Cantwell, a keen reader and lover of poetry who was first given a signed photo by Apollo 15 moonwalker Jim Irwin more than 20 years ago.

‘I thought little of it at the time, but years later I came across it, and the words Irwin had written on it, “with love from the moon”, set me thinking,’ recalls Cantwell. ‘My main interest is poetry and particularly Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, and I was struck by the connection between Dante’s allegorical journey beyond our world and the literal one undertaken by the Apollo astronauts. It intrigued me, and led me to thinking of how you could bridge the vision of a Renaissance poet with the experiences of the people who’ve actually been on the journey he imagined. So I asked the astronauts to come up with words to go on the images; it goes beyond autographs, connecting and marrying quotations with these stunning images,’ he explains.

So do the word/image connections work? To greater and lesser degrees, yes. As Cantwell points out, the still powerful images ‘encapsulate a spirit – you gaze at these images of the moon, a quarter of a million miles away, and the concept of people having walked on it is one you still can’t comprehend’.

Add the words of the men who undertook these journeys and you can’t fail to be moved. They humanise the endeavours, and add a personal dimension that allows us to connect with the images. Taken together, words and images convey the incredible sense of pioneering invincibility that categorised the decade in which the missions began.

‘There was a real sense that everything was possible, an almost schoolboy enthusiasm that was rooted in naivety, but resulted in a very positive attitude. Forty years on, the world’s a very different place,’ says Cantwell. Reason enough, surely, to see the show and discover some of what moonwalker Frank Borman felt when he said, ‘Exploration really is the essence of the human spirit, and to pause, to falter, to turn our back on the quest for knowledge, is to perish.’

Images of Apollo opens at Proud Gallery Camden, Stables Market, Chalk Farm Road, London NW1 on 21 June

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