Thirty-eight years ago today the crew of Apollo 17 took a photograph from space that would become known as “The Blue Marble.” The image is of earth, specifically Africa, the Middle East and Antarctica – though clouds conceal much of the southern portion of the planet. It has become the most recognizable image of earth from space. For me, “The Blue Marble” was a reminder of how small we are, as a planet and as a species. Apparently that is what the image says to most environmental organizations because it – and other images of earth taken from space – have become the go-to image for conveying messages about the interconnectedness of all life on the planet and putting human significance into perspective.
“The Blue Marble” forces the viewer to see the planet from a perspective so privileged that only a handful of people have experienced it first hand. It take the viewer and places them at a vantage point where something that usually appears vast is made small, like a marble. It challenges assumptions about scale and significance. It is frightening, yet beautiful; vast, yet insignificant; home, yet totally foreign. Even the glimpse of the curvature of the earth visible from an airplane cannot compare. It is extreme aerial photography, the sublime pushed to the limit. It draws on the awe-inspiring sublimity of nature that makes photographs of the Grand Canyon, mountain ranges, and never-ending vistas so engaging. It is the special North American form of the sublime, what Nye calls the Technological Sublime, but it does not show the technology that made the image possible. The technology is hidden from the gaze of the viewer, but the vantage point makes the technology difficult to ignore. It assumes the divine gaze from a man-made contraption. It is embodies deus ex machina.
“The Blue Marble” holds the imagination enchanted in 2010 as much as it did in 1972. It has held me spellbound for nearly twenty-years. In 1991, after seeing the IMAX film “Blue Planet” at the Canadian Museum of Civilization with my parents, brother, and cousin Fraser, I used my holiday allowance to buy an earth poster. It was the only poster from my childhood bedroom that came to university with me and it was not until one cross-country move too many rendered it in tatters that I reluctantly recycled my copy of “The Blue Marble”. I look forward to the day I come across a beautiful framed copy so it can once again be a daily reminder of how small we actually are.