Art | Need To Now

Vintage space photographs go on sale in London

Hautingly beautiful images from the pioneering days of space travel

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Vintage space photographs go on sale in London

October 31 2011
Charlotte Metcalf

Fifty years after Yuri Gagarin’s spacecraft was the first ever to orbit the earth, Victor Martin-Malburet’s collection of vintage Nasa prints is going under the hammer at Bloomsbury Auctions.

Anyone who has reached their half-century knows what an impact the iconic images of space and the moon landings had on the collective consciousness, redefining a generation for which there was no limit to the role science and technology could play in shaping its future.

Looking at the collection today is to reappraise not just the historic magnitude of the images but also their haunting beauty. Seen together for the first time, they ram home just how pioneering and courageous those early space explorers were, driven by an insatiable curiousity about the unknown. “At an early age I realised that these images had a real magic to them, a poetic dimension as well as historical, political and scientific value,” says Martin-Malburet.

There is a physical sense of immediacy that clings to these prints, very different from the images we are able to access and download daily. “These are historic artefacts – rare, iconic vintage photographs, some of which were taken by the astronauts themselves and printed within days of their return to earth,” enthuses Sarah Wheeler, Bloomsbury Auctions’ photographs specialist.

One of my favourites shows Thomas Stafford’s 1965 photograph of Gemini VII orbiting the earth (third picture), as fragile as a translucent, rose-tinted jellyfish in an inky sky. Another is the first in-flight portrait of astronaut Ed White in the capsule of Gemini IV in June 1965 (second picture). This dramatic, shadowy close-up captures the importance of the mission, clearly written on White’s intense features. It is particularly haunting, given that Ed White died two years later in the fire that destroyed Apollo 1.

Steven Dick, Nasa’s chief historian says, “The astronauts [from various missions] brought back two treasures from their extraordinary journey: samples of moon rock and their photographs.”

All the photographs are vintage, and mostly in colour. Estimates range from £200 to £800 for 8in x 10in and £2,000 to £10,000 for large-format prints (about 20in x 16in). The catalogue can now be viewed online at the Bloomsbury Auctions website.

First picture: crescent earthrise, Apollo 17, December 1972.