Fifty years ago, today, July 20, 1969, the whole world paused to watch a really fuzzy video in black and white of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the surface of the moon.

That week the July 25, 1969 issue of Time magazine arrived in my mom’s mailbox in Boise, Idaho. The cover said “Man on the Moon.” The painting on the cover was casein and acrylic on Masonite by Louis Glanzman depicting Neil Armstrong taking his first steps on the moon. A painting, not a photograph? What gives? This was the most significant human achievement — without a doubt — EVER! And the preeminent news magazine features a painting? Really?

Then: 1969

Getting a photograph into print on the cover of a magazine took time. Photography was exclusively the realm of film. Digital wasn’t even a dream. The astronauts, mainly mission commander Armstrong, took lots of photographs on 70mm wide color transparency film with specially modified Hasselblad cameras to record the first time humans visited another world. The film had to be brought back to earth and processed after being in quarantine for three weeks with the astronauts. The isolation was to prevent the spread of any bacteria or other “Andromeda Strain” nasties they might have picked up. By the way, “The Andromeda Strain” by Michael Crichton (who also wrote “Jurassic Park“) was number 5 in fiction bestsellers that week. The reason simply was the film was on its way to the lab. Apollo 11 was flying back from the moon with this issue of Time went to press.

Buzz Aldrin, second man on the moon, photographed by Neil Armstrong. Armstrong's reflection shows in Aldrin's protective space helmet.
Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, photographed by Neil Armstrong. Armstrong’s reflection shows in Aldrin’s protective space helmet. The moon photos weren’t published until almost a month after they were taken.

Paintings, word pictures

Paintings and illustrations were the only way to cover the news from the moon. While Time included a frame of the video of Armstrong’s first step and photos of the Saturn V launch, President Lyndon Johnson watching the liftoff as well as spectators experiencing the beginning of this once in humankind adventure, there was no way to print the photos. They hadn’t arrived back on earth yet. Writers for Time explained in great detail what had happened. Their words painted pictures in the imaginations of readers around the world. Magazines and online publications today are much less wordy. They count on instantly available photographs by pros and amateurs to carry stories. A photograph is worth a thousand words. Reading a magazine from 50 years ago proves that clichè.

Production times

Magazines took weeks to layout and print. The first high-quality photographs from the moon were featured in National Geographic’s December 1969 issue. The was a vinyl record of the “Sounds of the Space Age” that could be removed and played on a turntable.

National Geographic magazine featured photos from the first moon landing.
National Geographic magazine featured photos from the first moon landing.

50 years ago …

I was a rising senior in high school. I was 16 years old. It was summer in Idaho. Cameras came to Boise from Salt Lake City on Greyhound buses. I had arranged for the manager of my local camera store, Ballou-Latimer, to check to see if maybe, just maybe a package had come in on that Sunday morning. It had. Ron Pierce drove to the bus station and then met me outside the store to give me the package. It held the first camera I had ever purchased, a Mamiya C-33. Apollo 11 was in orbit around the moon. Armstrong and Aldrin would begin their descent to the surface in an hour or so.

Kevin's first "professional" camera, a Mamiya C-33 twin lens reflex interchangeable lens camera.
My “Man on the Moon Day” Mamiya C-33 with a 105mm f/3.5 interchangeable lens.

A little while later, my father and I boarded a commuter plane to meet my mom and little brother in Idaho Falls to begin a vacation. My family huddled around a black and white television in the Idaho Falls airport to watch coverage of the landing on the moon. That afternoon in the great room of the Staley Springs Lodge on Henry’s Lake, Idaho, along with a lot of other guests, we watched history unfolding in real-time as Neil Armstrong stepped from the LEM’s landing pad onto the moon.

Ron’s kindness in making the extra effort to get a first professional camera to a very beginning photographer on that historic Sunday followed by the moon landing made Sunday, July 20, 1969, incredibly special for me. It was a day beyond words and gratitude.

Moon photograph: NASA via Unsplash

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon: Photo by Neil Armstrong
Other photographs: ©Kevin Ames