Update: The photograph of astronaut Ed White on the first American spacewalk sold for £10,625, or just over $14,000.
What you see: The first photograph of man in space, depicting astronaut Ed White on the first American EVA (extra-vehicular activity, aka spacewalk), taken in June 1965. Christie’s estimates the large format print at £6,000 to £8,000, or $7,560 to $10,080.
The expert: James Hyslop, head of Christie’s department of scientific instruments, globes, and natural history.
Let’s talk about how the image came to be. Why did NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) want to take this picture? For science? For promotional purposes? Both? A little bit of both. I don’t think when Jim [astronaut James McDivitt] took the photo, he thought it would be so iconic. When they developed it at NASA, they realized they had a stunning image. The EVA was the primary focus of the mission, but they were always going to take photos.
Do we know how many photographs astronaut James McDivitt took during his colleague’s spacewalk? Yes. He took 16 photos with his Hasselblad.
Are the other 15 images as strong as this one? For me, this is the most striking. If it didn’t exist, I’m sure I’d say the others are equally impressive.
I guess this is a dream photography assignment on one level, in that no matter what you shoot, it will be new, historically important, and maybe even beautiful. Yeah, but the astronauts had to be trained how to do it. My hat is off to the astronaut-photographers.
Is Jim McDivitt visible in the reflection on Ed White’s helmet visor? You can see the spacecraft, but not the photographer. I’ve looked.
Did astronaut Ed White talk publicly about the experience of performing the first American spacewalk? I can do one better. A transcript of what White and McDivitt said to each other exists [this is courtesy of NASA]:
McDivitt: Okay. He’s out. He’s floating free.
White: All right. Now, I’ve come above the spacecraft and I’m under my own control.
McDivitt: Okay. Just a second. You’re right in front, Ed. You look beautiful.
White: I feel like a million dollars. All right we’ll pitch up and yaw left. I’m coming back to you.
White: Let me get over where I can see you, Ed.
McDivitt: Take it easy now. You’re in a vacuum.
White: Okay. I’ll come in and take a look at you now.
McDivitt: Wait a second. Let me take your picture.
Was the first American spacewalk uneventful, or did the astronauts face glitches or dangers? As you might imagine, there were a few. I believe they were supposed to do the spacewalk on the second orbit, but it happened on the third. I’m not quite sure they were ready for it. When they were coming back in, they had trouble closing the hatch. If they couldn’t close the hatch, they couldn’t land safely. Fortunately, they were able to solve the problem.
This print of astronaut Ed White on the first American spacewalk measures 11 inches by 14 inches, which makes it large-format. Do we know how many copies were made at this size? We don’t know how many. I think only a few were produced.
In 1965, there was no secondary market for photography. For whom were these large-format prints made? Do we know? I suspect they were for internal gifts for those involved in the mission. I know some were given to dignitaries or other astronauts. With this, I don’t know if it was given to anyone in particular. The lot following this one in the sale was from Ed White’s own collection, and it is large-format.
Did this photograph of astronaut Ed White take on extra resonance after he perished in the Apollo I fire? Certainly. I think the Apollo I accident definitely reminds us of just how risky this was. The EVA was successful, and the mission was completed, but everyone was nervous about it. They weren’t absolutely certain until weeks before the launch that they’d do the spacewalk. The Russians had already done a spacewalk in March 1965. The point of doing it was to show they had the technological capability to do it. You’ve got to do this stuff if you want to get to the moon.
What is the photograph like in person? Are there aspects that don’t come across on camera? It’s not specific to this image, but with a large-format photograph, it’s that much easier to immerse yourself in it. There’s something about handling a vintage print that takes you a step closer to these events. Just handling these real objects brings home the fact that human beings did this.
What’s your favorite detail of this photograph of the first American spacewalk? The reflection in the visor. There’s something playful about it. I love the idea that the photographer could see a little bit of himself in the reflection. In art history, the idea goes back to Jan Van Eyck and the mirror–the distortion. I just love that. It’s not just an accident of a scientific mission. It’s a beautiful photograph in its own right.
Does this sale represent the first time a large-format version of this photograph of astronaut Ed White has gone to auction? If the lots are not described as large format in their dimensions, they don’t always come up [in a search]. There was a sale of a large-format version at Bloomsbury London in 2015. It was £11,000, hammer price, but I can’t find it online.
How often do you see large-format prints of this image of the first American spacewalk? The only one I know of is the one that sold at Bloomsbury in 2015, but I’m sure there are others.
What’s the likelihood this example will meet or beat the one that sold in 2015? There’s certainly a good chance of it. The 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 was last year, and the optimism toward space and the future of space travel is stronger than it was in 2015.
Why will this image of astronaut Ed White on the first American spacewalk stick in your memory? There’s something special about the first spacewalk, the first earthrise, the first view from the far side of the moon. The large format makes it extra-special.
How to bid: The large format image of astronaut Ed White taking the first American spacewalk is lot 86 in Voyage to Another World: The Victor Martin-Malburet Photograph Collection, an online Christie’s sale that takes place between November 6 and November 19, 2020.
Images are courtesy of Christie’s.
James Hyslop has appeared on The Hot Bid before, talking about STAN the T.rex, which went on to sell for a record $31 million; a rocket-like (ahem) tall gogotte formation from Fontainebleu, France, a Canyon Diablo meteorite, and a Seymchan meteorite with pallasites.
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