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Apollo Photography and the Color of the Moon

Michael Light

Copyright © 2000 by Michael Light and Eric M. Jones. All rights reserved.

Editor's Note: I recently had the pleasure of attending the Sydney opening of Mike Light's Full Moon and, the next day, to have a leisurely walk thru with some Sydney friends. I was delighted at the lovely detail. Some of the geology visible on the orbital shots is fabulous; and I was simply awed to see some of the pans done with care and at large scale.

I highly recommend the show to anyone who has a chance to see it.

Our Sydney friends, Jan and Russell Beardmore, are not certifiable Space Nuts, but still spent the time moving from picture to picture, responding to each with a heartfelt "Wow!!!!!".

The Beardmores had one particularly insightful question, asking if the pictures were in color and if that was really the color of the moon. I helped them spot some of the color shots where one could see red CDR stripes, gold hi-gain antennas, the orange soil at Shorty, etc. and then talked a little about the usual descriptions of the color being 'mouse grey' - that is, a grey with a slight brownish tinge. Because I didn't see any hint of the brownish tinge in the color prints, I speculated that Mike had chosen to surpress the brownish tint in order to match the general surface shades between the B&W and color images.

I said I would pass the question along to Mike.


Mike replied (16 December 2000):

Color on the moon, as you know, is a very subjective phenonmenon; it is also quite variable in terms of actual physical phenomena, ie, the color changes depending on the angle of the sun and one's orientation to it. 'Mouse grey,' 'mouse brown,' 'concrete,' 'asphalt,' etc. -- ask the 12 moonwalkers what the color of the moon is and you'll get 12 different answers. Of course we know that there is color on the moon (the green rocks, the reddish hues, localized phenomena like Shorty Crater's orange), and Dave Scott put it well in our gallery walk-through at the Hayward Gallery (London) last year: "You see what you expect to see: you have to open your mind." (That got the more youthful partying astro-wannabes in the crowd going, let me tell you ;-}.)

Setting the subjectiveness and variability of lunar color aside, my involvement was of course with the still photography done by the astronauts, and here one runs primarily into the limitations and biases of film itself. One must not forget that these are just photographs, not the real thing. What appears on the film is the product of countless interactions between a machine and reality itself.

What I know best in terms of color is the film, the first generation master dupes, and in truth that film is a complete mess. It's absolutely all over the place in terms of color, far more than any reported color variability of the moon itself. I should say, too, that the masters I worked with were the best they get: happily NASA had just made brand-spanking-new color masters -- from Gemini through Apollo -- about a year before I arrived. They'd not even been cut from the giant magazine rolls: no fading of the dyes here. Needless to say, the old masters were far worse: they had gone magenta the way most transparency film from a certain era does when not stored in very cold conditions.

So why the variability, even with the new masters? Some magazines were cyan, some blue, some magenta, some green, some neutral, some showing strange 'crossover' where colors mix strangely within specific images themselves. Many reasons come to mind:

So: I worked in my exhibition printing towards a neutral gray, isolating what I felt to be filmic issues and eliminating them. There is still color in my prints, but filmic casts and filmic crossover has been largely eliminated; I worked to eliminate mission-specific filmic artifacts.

Transparency film from AS16, for example, is consistently, relentlessly blue -- no one ever reported the moon being blue -- as well as brutally overexposed in most instances. Photoshop allows one to work on contrast and saturation in to compensate for overexposure in ways that amaze, but increase contrast and saturation and everything only goes even more blue -- so one must selectively go in and desaturate that overheightened blue that never should have been there in the first place . . . . Picture number 67 (in Full Moon) still has some blue, but much has been cut. Images looking directly into the sun, however, all go blue and should do so: that's what happened across all missions.

AS17 transparency film is pretty consistently magenta, with crossover of greens; I cut them both down, but one can still see in the prints the warmth that Cernan and Schmitt discussed.

And so on through the missions . . .