Why “Earthrise” is the Most Influential Photo Ever Taken

Josh Druding
May 5, 2020 · 8 min read

And why it matters just as much now as it did in 1968

by josh druding

Defined by assassinations, riots, war and political turmoil, 1968 America was at arms with itself and its neighbors. As the year wound down, the Nation was shattered, and a path to recovery seemed like an impossible dream. As it turned out, there was a way to save 1968, but man would have to travel a quarter of a million miles away to do it. That journey and the photograph that would define it, “Earthrise,” would provide a token of hope and a new perspective of our entire existence.

Apollo 8’s historic journey to the moon, which resulted in the now infamous photo called “Earthrise,” was a mission deemed impossible. Many feared it would end in catastrophic failure and become an eerily fitting end to such a horrific year. But, the outcome was an almost flawless success, and it produced a photograph so symbolic that it seemed to change the entire objective of the mission. It changed the way we see our planet and sparked the environmental movement as we know it today — described by nature photographer Galen Rowell as “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.”

While Americans had traveled all that way to discover the moon, they had discovered something else. They had discovered the Earth. A singular, bright blue orb. There were no signs of borders, religion or politics, just a vulnerable oasis sitting alone in the vast infinite of space.

a christmas story

On Christmas Eve, 1968, three American astronauts-Frank Borman, James Lovell, and Bill Anders-orbited the Moon for the first time in human history. Apollo 8 had been an unthinkable mission tasked to be the first crewed spacecraft to leave Earth’s orbit, reach the Moon, orbit it (10 times), plot potential landing sites for the first lunar landing, and then return safely. All while flying aboard the first crewed launch of the Saturn V rocket — a monstrous engineering marvel towering 363 feet (about the height of a 36-story-tall building, and 60 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty). If the impossible didn’t sound impossible enough, NASA had only four months to plan for the mission, train the crew and launch.

NASA was racing against a clock set by President John F. Kennedy in 1961: to land a man on the moon before the end of the decade, return him safely, and hopefully beat the Soviets in the process. But by 1968, America was losing the space race and seemed to always be one step behind the Soviets. After risky updates and changes to the Apollo 8 flight plan, it was this mission that would put the Americans ahead for the first time and make the Apollo 11 lunar landing in July of 1969 possible.

Apollo 8 launched on December 21 and wouldn’t reach the Moon for another three days. Once the spacecraft successfully entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, it would make 10 complete orbits before heading back home. As Borman, Lovell and Anders emerged from the far side of the Moon for their fourth pass of the near side, the crew witnessed an “Earthrise” the first time. Bill Anders, the mission’s photographer, could hardly believe what he was seeing.

Audio recordings captured him calling to his crewmates in complete excitement, “Oh my God! Look at that picture over there! There’s the Earth coming up. Wow, that’s pretty.” He then grabbed his camera and started firing away, floating from window to window trying to get the best shot. Because their mission had been to document the Moon, Commander Frank Borman jokingly responded to Anders “Hey, don’t take that, it’s not scheduled.”

Anders captured the historic photo with a modified Hasselblad 500 EL camera. He quickly replaced the black & white film already in the camera with color film and continued shooting with a Zeiss Sonnar 250MM telephoto lens (1/250th of a second at f/11). In that moment, Anders had become arguably one of the most famous photographers in the world.

The negative that would become “Earthrise” splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean with the crew of Apollo 8 on December 27th, just 4 days prior to the new year. Before “Earthrise” captured the world’s imagination, 1968 could have easily been defined by one of several historic events. Each resulting in affliction, and each with photos of their own immortalizing them in history books forever. To say the least, the success of Apollo 8 and “Earthrise”couldn’t have come at a better time.

a year of distress in 6 photos

Here’s a look at six of those historic events and the photos we remember them by. Two are now on Time’s list of the 100 Most influential Images of All Time (along with “Earthrise”), one of which won the Pulitzer Prize.

January 23: North Korea Captures the USS Pueblo

Korean Central News Agency

An official North Korean photo (Korean Central News Agency) shows crew members of the USS Pueblo being taken into custody after the spy ship was seized in international waters. Negotiations lasted 11 months and increased Cold War tensions. The astronauts of Apollo 8 were kept apprised of the negotiations during their mission and learned that the Pueblo crew was released just one day before they entered lunar orbit.

February 1: Saigon Execution

Eddie Adams, Associated Press photographer

Two days after what became known as the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War, Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams captured a photo that would symbolize the brutality of the war and energize the growing anti-war movement. Adams would end up winning the Pulitzer Prize for this image, and Time added it to its list of The 100 Most Influential Images of All Time.

April 4: Martin Luther King Jr. Assassinated

Joseph Louw

Joseph Louw, a South African photographer and filmmaker, was working on a documentary about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr when he captured a stunned crowd pointing towards the direction of King’s assassin. Following the assassination, riots would break out in more than 100 cities across the nation.

June 5: Robert F. Kennedy Assassinated

Boris Yaro, The Los Angeles Times

Boris Yaro, a photographer for The Los Angeles Times, capturedJuan Romero cradling a mortally wounded Robert F. Kennedy. Romero was a busboy at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles where Kennedy was giving a speech. After his death, a news station out of New York City broadcasted a single word — SHAME — on it’s network for two and half hours summing up the sentiment felt across the country.

August 28: Chicago Democratic Convention Protests

CORBIS-BETTMANN-UPI REUTERS

As 2,600 delegates arrived in Chicago, so did at least 11,900 police officers, 7,500 Army troops, and 5,500 National Guardsmen. They had mobilized to keep the peace as 100,000 protesters from across the country flooded Grant Park. As the sun went down, the violence had begun between protesters and police, who had been given the license to “shoot to kill” by Mayor Richard J. Daley. Photos and videos like this one filled newspapers and TV screens across the country. The whole world was watching.

October 16: Black Power Salute

John Dominis, Life Magazine

American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos staged a silent demonstration against racial discrimination in the United States when they took the stand at the 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City. When the Star Spangled Banner began to play, the two bowed their heads and raised black-gloved fists in the air. Captured by John Dominis for Life Magazine, the image would become a symbol of the racial tensions that had come to a boiling point in the 1960s. The image is on Time’s list of The 100 Most Influential Images of All Time.

saving 1968 and what it means now

As evidenced by these historic photos and events, 1968’s legacy was on track to be defined by tragedy and distress. Not until Apollo 8 completed its pass around the far side of the moon and the crew laid eyes on an “Earthrise’’ for the first time did that legacy change. As noted in both A Man on the Moon, Andrew Chaikin’s book on the Apollo program, and Rocket Men, Rubert Kurson’s chronicle of the Apollo 8 mission, the astronauts received countless letters after returning safely. But one in particular stuck out the most, and in the fewest words. The note read, “You Saved 1968.”

Now, more than 50 years after Bill Anders captured “Earthrise”, America (and the world) is experiencing another historic year of distress. A global pandemic has devastated most countries around the world, becoming a painful reminder of how closely connected we are as a planet. This is what makes “Earthrise” special and mean as much today as it did in 1968. While beautiful, it’s a humble reminder of how fragile and small we are. Sadly, most have ignored it, and it’s taken more pain and suffering to get noticed again.

Just like 1968 did before it, 2020 will eventually heal, and debates over imaginary lines and arguments to “put your country first” will likely continue. So, the question is, will we once again forget what “Earthrise” taught us? That, as Kurson described in Rocket Men, we’re merely “a pinpoint in an infinite universe.” One can only hope that we continue to revisit “Earthrise” and take a closer look at that pinpoint floating in the darkness. Because, besides those who inhabit it, there’s nothing else to protect it. It’s all we have, and we’re all it has.”

Originally published at https://joshdruding.com on May 5, 2020.

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Josh Druding

Written by

Josh is a freelance photographer, blogger and social media advertising professional based in San Diego, California.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +789K followers.

Josh Druding

Written by

Josh is a freelance photographer, blogger and social media advertising professional based in San Diego, California.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +789K followers.

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