Neil Armstrong — the first man to set foot on the Moon, who shunned fame and was notoriously protective of his privacy — died Saturday. His passing has, of course, triggering an avalanche of media attention. The irony of this situation has been lost on precisely no one.
But in covering Armstrong's death, journalists and news outlets have encountered a problem: there are surprisingly few photographs of Neil Armstrong on the Moon, and all but one of them are of his hind-quarters. We like to think that Armstrong would have found this situation amusing.
The best description of the situation (and the first, that we know of) came from visual journalist Charles Apple over at the American Copy Editors Society. You'll want to head there for the complete — and highly informative — run-down, but here's what he had to say about the images you see up top.
Let's start with the image shown here. Apple calls this "arguably the most famous picture taken in the history of mankind"; which is too bad in the context of Armstrong-coverage, because not only is it not a photo of Armstrong (this is Aldrin, though Armstrong can be seen in the reflection off Buzz's visor), it's also been doctored to look better than the original:
NASA retouchers added black sky to the top of the picture [the original is on the left, the retouched version on the right]. That might not seem like a big deal to you - especially when you're on deadline tonight - but, believe me, it is. Many newspapers have ethical guidelines in place that specifically warn against using handout pictures that were manipulated by the source.
Seeing as you can't exactly run a photo of Buzz Aldrin in an obit for Neil Armstrong, and simply direct your reader's attention to the tiny reflection on a helmet visor, that leaves journalists with pretty much two options if they want to show Armstrong on the Moon:
Option one: choose from any number of photos that happen to show Armstrong's butt. Here, we've included two such shots (labeled i. and ii.) but seriously, as Apple points out, there are several of them.
Option two: use a frame from the time-lapse video of Neil and Buzz erecting the American flag on the Moon. According to Apple, the frame featured here, labeled iii., is "the only picture we know about in which you can see Neil Armstrong's face while he's on the moon." The caveat, says Apple, is that the quality sucks.
According to Apple, the reason for the lack of photos of Armstrong-with-Moon is simple:
Armstrong and Aldrin only walked on the moon for about two-and-a-half hours that night in 1969. Most of the time, Armstrong carried the primary camera. Aldrin carried a camera but was assigned to shoot specific, technical things. The result: Lots of pictures of Aldrin. But hardly any of Neil.
Of course, Armstrong's habit of shunning the camera — both on the Moon and here on Earth — only makes him more alluring as an icon. The humble hero, after all, is an exceedingly rare breed.
Check out the rest of Apple's analysis (including some creative photographic workarounds to the Armstrong+Moon situation) over at The American Copy Editor's Society.