As 1972 came to a close fifty years ago this month, so too did an era. “This issue of Life is the last of 1,864 issues,” Hedley Donovan, the long-time editor-in-chief of Time Incorporated, wrote in the December 29 edition of the iconic weekly magazine. “In part because of Life, we live in an age of pictures.”
While the ninety-six pages of volume 73, number 25, were stuffed with colourful ads for automobiles and cigarettes, editorial photography played the undisputed starring role. Flip through it today, and you’ll find Richard Nixon trying to use chopsticks at a formal dinner in Hangzhou, China, and attending a champagne reception in Moscow. A young Catholic woman hurtling a rock at a British armoured vehicle in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, perhaps on Bloody Sunday. Nine-year-old Kim Phúc running toward Nick Ut’s Leica M2 camera, in an indelible frame that would later win a Pulitzer Prize. And there’s Liza Minnelli performing in Cabaret and Elizabeth Taylor turning forty and Steve Prefontaine losing the Olympic gold medal that everyone thought he would win.
Ironically, Life’s swan song, a special double issue titled “The Year in Pictures 1972,” does not feature what’s undoubtedly the most famous photograph taken that year — arguably the most famous photograph of all time. The film that contained The Blue Marble had not yet been developed when the magazine went to press; it had just come back from the moon.
Apollo 17 had blasted off from Cape Kennedy, Florida, at 12:33 on the morning of December 7. It was NASA’s final launch of the Saturn V and the only one to take place in the dark. Just over five hours later, when the mission’s three astronauts were hurtling through space some 29,000 kilometres away from the Earth, one of them looked out the window and snapped four shots in quick succession with a 70-millimetre Hasselblad. He wasn’t supposed to, and nobody really knows which of the three men “he” was. No matter. That moment was the first time the human eye was able to behold the entire planet without it being partly in shadow. It hasn’t happened again since.
The second of the four negatives, officially designated by NASA as AS17-148-22727 and credited to the entire crew, quickly entered the public domain and the public consciousness, changing the way we understand our place in the cosmos. In the instantly recognizable composition, we see the Earth from the Mediterranean to the South Pole, from the west coast of Africa to the mainland of South Asia. The prominent position of Antarctica signals the coming winter solstice, while a cyclone, having already hit the port city of Cuddalore with 150-kilometre-per-hour winds, spins in the Indian Ocean.
For five decades now, environmentalists have used The Blue Marble on posters, buttons, and T-shirts as a symbol of nature’s fragility and as a reminder that we far too often lose sight of the big picture, arguing instead about various policy positions and perceived slights that won’t matter at all if we don’t first care for the planet. We are interconnected, the photograph insists, with each other and all other living things.
The meteorologist Edward Norton Lorenz captured the spirit of such interconnectedness with a talk he gave on December 29, 1972, the same day that millions opened that last issue of Life. “If a single flap of a butterfly’s wing can be instrumental in generating a tornado,” he hypothesized at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “so also can all the previous and subsequent flaps of its wings, as can the flaps of the wings of millions of other butterflies, not to mention the activities of innumerable more powerful creatures, including our own species.”
In late 2022, many of us seem less concerned with Lorenz’s “butterfly effect” and more preoccupied with a flapping of another sort. “The bird is freed,” Elon Musk tweeted on October 27, moments after the maverick billionaire’s purchase of Twitter ultimately closed. It’s impossible to know the full knock-on effect of this predictably chaotic acquisition, including the total number of pink slips issued here and elsewhere. But are we giving too much attention to Musk’s determination to remake in his image a social media platform that — if we’re being completely honest with ourselves — now does more harm than good? Especially when we compare such fixated coverage with the relatively scant scrutiny paid to something like the recent United Nations climate conference in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt?
Unlike those erstwhile Life editors, we’ve had time to take The Blue Marble for granted. Yet fifty years on, with so much else competing for our attention, we might pause for a moment to call up this singular depiction of the sublime and marvel at it, at our shared home, once more.