Marcus Kleinfeld, artist, on one of the first photographs of earth taken from space, by the Apollo 8 Mission in 1968.
GB Tell me why you chose this.
MK The image of earth from space is just the most extraordinary thing imaginable. It’s the most beautiful planet known to us, with its continents, oceans, clouds, atmosphere and its radiant blue colour – but even more striking is the fact that whilst beholding its image we are simultaneously looking at ourselves looking out. Somewhere out there in our solar system is this rotating piece of rock that’s brimming with life and thought. The fact that we have managed to transcend its confines and leave for space, thereby looking back at ourselves, is to me, aesthetically as much as philosophically, really quite heartbreaking. This photograph is symbolic of humanity’s greatest achievement.
GB Do you think it looked more beautiful to the astronauts seeing it for the first time? Do we take it for granted now?
MK I am sure it must have been a life-altering experience for the astronauts, at least that’s what they all seem to have claimed. Seeing the uniqueness, the beauty and perhaps even the fragility of earth from space must have put their lives into a totally new perspective. What are our small lives and memories when they’re seen from thousands of miles away, from inside a black expanse of infinite space? When the place we call home looks as though it could be held in the palm of our hand, outside the tiny window of a rocket?
I do think this image of our planet has lost its novelty and with that, perhaps, part of its significance to many. It’s an image every child knows and I’m guessing, one of the most published images of all time. I think the only way to appreciate and understand it fully and anew would be to go up there again, to leave earth. To see it from such a distance, to grasp that one is simply not on it anymore, and the possibility of loss, or of not returning, would probably always be sensational. Perhaps we can only understand what we love once we are truly separated from it.
GB Has this beauty lived up to all the expectations it created in 1968 and the first days of space travel? Now we have seen so much more of the cosmos.
MK Through the 1960s there were revolutionary social changes in most Western countries around the globe: changes that managed to spread even prior to the existence of the internet. It is interesting how the first image of planet earth ever seen by humanity coincided with a new mindset and the opening up of alternative lifestyles. Publications from those decades such as the ‘Whole Earth Catalog’ were acknowledging a changing attitude and began looking at the future optimistically, both ecologically and socially.
In some ways this image of earth may be unsurpassed and will perhaps remain so until we have an image of a planet not dissimilar to ours for the very first time, with an abundance of new life forms, even though exploratory devices are delivering stunning images from galaxies ever further away from us. Most planets have their own distinct beauty that can at times be rather different to Earth – such as Saturn’s rings, or Jupiter’s colourful bands and belts, which circle around its surface in opposing directions. Yet I still believe that Earth ultimately is the most touching sight of all – because it is where we come from, and has miraculously given us a consciousness with which to appreciate it – that has even led us far enough to be looking at it from the outside in.
GB Does the beauty hold any kind of religious awe for you? It was famously relayed to the world via television with the astronauts reciting the beginning verses of Genesis.
MK I don’t consider myself a religious person and would also use the word ‘spiritual’ with a lot of caution, seeing how clichéd and overused it has become. Everyone watching the orbit must have been awed and I suppose the recital from Genesis was a reminder of the achievements of the Western Christian world. Of course it’s a way of illustrating man’s progress – from an ancient book with its admittedly beautiful descriptions of form and void and darkness and then light, to hurtling humans into space in a capsule, without any apparent sight of an omniscient God. Chinese or Russians might have read something different since communism placed human independence and achievement above any Christian doctrine.
GB Do you think a work of art could ever have the same impact as humans seeing earth from space for the first time?
MK I don’t think so. Although one of the greatest works ever achieved in my opinion is Kubrick’s ‘2001 – A Space Odyssey’, and there we see Earth as well. Kubrick also did away with religious connotations, opting for a deeper sense of existence in all its incomprehensibility instead, as represented by the black monolith (however one may choose to understand it). But I think for an artwork to compare to this it would have to be so truthful and overwhelming and perhaps unquestionable. It would have to signify where we come from and what we are, and what we may never even understand.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
MK Something truthful that speaks to us about the nature of existence. It could be a destructive force of nature like a tidal wave or a person who is particularly empathetic or kind. In the arts I’m drawn to anything that attempts to speak of new things, of relevant things, rather than lose itself in its own mannered surfaces and styles. A work of art can be heavy and fraught with meaning, with sorrow or hardship, and still be incredibly beautiful if it touches on something true and reminds us what connects us all and how much there still is to surmount or learn.