Neil Armstrong, who died two days ago, was of course the first man to set foot on the moon (he always insisted that what he said was, "A small step for a man, a giant leap for mankind," but that the "a" got lost in the transmission). It's easy to overlook the fact that he also took some of the most sensational and spectacular photographs in the history of humankind.
Part of taking good, meaningful, important photographs is access—you've got to be there where the relevant events are happening. Parents often take the best photographs of their children because they're there all the time (Sally Mann made a career of it). War photographers and photojournalists go to great lengths to be where the action is. Luck plays a part; why was Sebastiao Salgado with Reagan when John Hinckley shot him, or why was Jim Nachtwey in New York City on 9/11? Sometimes, insiders are the ones with access—Danny Lyon was accepted among the motorcycle gangs he photographed, Larry Clark was part of the drug community in Tulsa, and Shelby Lee Adams photographed his own people and friends in Appalachia. "Access" is important in the time domain, too—whenever students would try to assert that they could take pictures of anything, I'd just say fine, go take a portrait of Winston Churchill.
One of the main reasons why press credentials have traditionally been so important is because they provide access; and one of the reason why ordinary cellphone snapshots taken by ordinary people have become important lately is because the people happen to be there when something extraordinary happens (for example, the second shot in this post).
In fact, one of the ways you can direct your own photography usefully is by anwering the question, "what do I have access to?" or "what can I get access to"?
But the ultimate examples of this idea of "access" are photographs taken from space or from the surface of the moon. It's one tough ticket. And of course by far the most important trip there was the first one; and only two people were on the surface that day. By the very virtue of the fact that he was the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong was also the first photographer on the moon. Some of the pictures he took are beyond "iconic" (that intensifier word we are in the process of quickly wearing out). They are indisputably among the most important photographs ever made. Or that ever will be made.
These pictures and captions are from the Apollo Image Gallery at the Apollo Archive site. If you'd like to read about the Apollo 11 astronauts' camera equipment, there's an informative page at the Lunar and Planetary Institute website.
(Thanks to Rod Sainty and Jeff Dalzell)
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Joseph Reid: "The first picture in this post, of Armstrong by Aldrin, is my favorite. For one moment Armstrong's engineer facade slipped and he looked like a little boy just back from his first plane ride. The best ride ever. One of the best portraits ever. And Aldrin caught it for us."