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ART REVIEW : ‘Space Panorama’ Photos Propel Viewers on Exciting Orbit Around the Earth

San Diego County Arts Writer

Gemini, Apollo, Saturn booster, Skylab, Lunar Module, Challenger. The language of space exploration comes to high-tech life in Balboa Park at the Museum of Photographic Arts’ exhibit “Sightseeing: A Space Panorama” (through Sunday).

Surrounded by pictures of astronauts in space, a visitor to this brilliantly installed show feels similarly liberated, freed from Earth’s gravity.

Black, dark blue and deep purple walls add to the feeling of isolation, of floating hundreds of miles above the blue and white, cloud-covered surface of the Earth.

One of the best ways to see this exhibit of 110 large color images taken in outer space is to make a quick first orbit of the show. Allow yourself to be pulled from picture to picture as though you, too, were weightlessly drifting 400 miles above Earth at a speed of 18,000 miles an hour.

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Then vector back to your favorite photos for a closer look. The exhibition is packed with exquisite images.

Check out the craters of the moon in exposures taken during a 1969 Apollo mission. Shots of the astronauts’ footprints in the thick dust that carpets the surface of the moon powerfully convey a sense of discovery, of adventurers exploring new territory.

Culled from more than 180,000 exposures made by astronauts, the show portrays the desolate moonscape with stark beauty, as well as the danger and fragility of man in space. One eerie photo shows the ribbonlike trail made by the Lunar Module Antares as it rolled across the moon’s pocked and cratered surface.

The exhibit, organized by Barbara Hitchcock and co-produced by Peter Riva and the Recontres Internationales de la Photographie, gives the astronauts’ impressions of space.

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Although scientific part and parcel of 21 National Aeronautics and Space Administration missions, these “snapshots” capture a sense of awe and wonder.

The Himalayas at sunrise, when seen from several hundred miles above, look like so many skeletal, white chicken’s feet. The eroded salt domes of Iran’s southern Zagros Mountains resemble huge bootprints. The exhibit also reveals wrinkled sand patterns on the ocean floor surrounding the Bahamas and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, lodged in crystal blue seas.

The Rio Envira curls like a white ribbon diagonally across a blue-black rectangle of Amazonian jungle. Madagascar, Antarctica and the Red Sea appear in a different perspective when seen from 400 miles up.

Visually, NASA’s own high-tech equipment has a strong appeal: the immensity of space in sharp contrast to the astronauts’ white space suits, the extensive use of gold and silver Mylar, the technical wizardry of Skylab and the shuttles Challenger and Columbia.

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Sometimes the space machines take on human characteristics, as in one photo, where Columbia’s thick tail fins sensually recall human thighs.

In the entire exhibit there is only one brief glimpse of actual human skin, a patch of a creased forehead that appears reddish brown through an astronaut’s visor. Otherwise the astronauts are encased in their bulky suits.

But the human presence in a basically dangerous cosmos is palpable.

Ultimately, the exhibit conveys a sense of mankind’s tentative first steps into space. A 1966 image shows Buzz Aldrin, upside down, clinging to the exterior of the Ajena Docking Vehicle as a black void looms forever in the distance.

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Man’s first space walk, made by Edward H. White II in June, 1965, is recorded in several photos that show the astronaut amid a tangle of golden umbilical line against the backdrop of Earth.

The images seem to say that, despite the vast resources in technology assembled to boost man into space, the human factor, with its vulnerability to missteps, is always present.


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