Pictures by Proxy: Images of Exploration and the First Decade of Astronaut Photography at NASA

Jennifer Levasseur

Major Professor: Paula Petrik, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Meredith Lair, Ellen Todd, Michael Neufeld

Johnson Center, G
November 20, 2014, 01:00 PM to 11:00 AM


The first decade of hand-held camera use by astronaut provided tens of thousands of images and a valuable resource for better understanding the astronaut experience. More than just words on television or quotes in a newspaper article, the photographs evoke a sense of space known by so few but fascinating to so many. From the iconic to the mundane, these photographs became the most significant part of the broad collective memory of early human spaceflight, especially those that touched on visual themes present throughout the history of exploration photography. Analyzing the story of astronaut photography meaningfully augments existing scholarly inquiries regarding visual culture, exploration, technology, and public memory, particularly in regards to the period of the 1960s. Astronaut images share numerous characteristics with previous exploration efforts, efforts that used photography as a scientific, documentary, and public relations tool. They are also unique in ways that require investigation. Technology plays a significant role in the ability to record human experiences in extreme conditions, so cameras and training given to astronauts needed to provide flawless functionality to men trained as pilots and engineers first. Along with the astronauts using the cameras were those on the ground, who laid out the systematic plans for photography and created scripts to follow, all the while allowing for spontaneous crew-selected work. When returned to Earth, interpretation of images fell to multiple audiences, who used the photographs for often-unforeseen purposes, and with results that have found their way into the collective memory of this country. This story is about not only astronaut photography and the historical challenges of imaging in extreme conditions, but also technological choices made along the way, training test pilots to act as surrogate photographers, and how audiences perceived the results as part of the larger cultural experience of the 1960s.