This print has only the briefest caption, so we have had to construct one. The agency it emerged from, Team Editorial Services, were always sparing with the information they provided their clients. They might offer a name and a date. On a good day they might spell it correctly. As their pictures were sent abroad, information was added and fleshed out. The photograph might have appeared in the Italian press. We have no record. However it transpires this photograph never travelled; killed at birth by the protective might of the US Government at a time in Italy’s history when America was enmeshed in the internal affairs of their NATO allay. It’s a story of stellar celebrity and of enterprising photographers who provoked a reaction to generate a more marketable picture. Like so many stories to emanate from Italy, it’s a narrative of harsh flash light and clandestine whispers. And of course, it’s a story of an astronaut who came back down to earth.
When the Apollo 11 astronauts, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins returned from the first Moon Landing, their splash down in the Ocean sent ripples around the world. For the first 21 days they wore biological isolation garments, quarantined inside a sealed converted Airstream trailer on a US Navy recovery ship afloat in the Pacific.
Once released, they quickly discovered, partly to their horror, that they had become valuable commodities to both their country and their employer. All three were to be crafted as totems of American Cold War triumphalism and as brand ambassadors for NASA in their bid for continued and enhanced Government funding. Collins was cast as the eternal wingman with the real caché reserved for the moonwalkers Aldrin and ‘first man on the Moon’ Armstrong.
Just one day after their release, on 13 August 1969, they were paraded through the streets of New York in the morning, through Chicago in the afternoon and through Los Angles in the evening. It was the prelude to a 45-day, 25 country ‘Giant Leap’ tour during which they shook the hands of 25,000 people from out of the crowds of a hundred million bystanders.
Neil Armstrong in particular hated almost every moment. He announced he would no longer fly space missions and, soon after, retreated into teaching, opting for the relative quiet of the University of Cincinnati, Ohio. He refused to give autographs and in 2005 sued his local barber of 20 years on discovering his hair clippings had been sold to a dealer for $3000. The clippings were subsequently separated into individual strands, mounted onto photographic cards and flipped on the Internet for $50 a piece. The photographer Martin Parr owns one.
Buzz Aldrin found life back on earth equally challenging and at times as constricting as his 21 days in hermetically sealed quarantine. He accepted a management role at the Edwards Air Force Base in California and for a period battled with clinical depression and alcoholism. In 1971 he toured US bases in Britain, France, Italy and Germany to advise on pilot testing.
His autobiography, Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home from the Moon, recalls the specific incident when the photograph was taken.
“Later that afternoon, I called the sultry Italian actress Gina Lollobrigida, and told her I was in town. I had met Gina during the world tour following Apollo 11, and she sounded delighted to hear from me. ‘Come on by,’ she said, ‘I’ll be here this afternoon.’ A staff driver and I begun searching for her villa on Via Appia. We were about to give up when we saw several television vans parked in front of the entrance to a villa. Sure enough, the paparazzi told us that we were at the right house. I had changed out of my uniform before leaving the air base, and was wearing casual clothes, so I didn’t think anyone would recognize me. […]
As soon as I got out of the military staff car, one of the media people saw me and said, ‘Hey, I know you.’ I kept walking and didn’t respond. ‘I know you!’ the guy said again, following after me, his face beaming with the excitement of presumed recognition.
‘You’re Neil Armstrong!’
I smiled to myself and kept on walking.
Gina greeted me warmly and we spent a marvellous few hours getting reacquainted. I would have preferred to stay right there, but the U.S. Embassy attaché had informed us that our hosts had planned an escorted tour of Roman nightlife. Our hosts meant well, but they hadn’t anticipated the press of paparazzi following us everywhere […].
The next night during our visit, Italian general Giorgio Santucci invited me to join him for the premiere opening of the Number One Club in Rome. […] The paparazzi proved particularly relentless. They were far more than annoying; they were downright obnoxious. Before long a photographer recognised me, then another, soon we were surrounded. We got up and headed to the door when a photographer jumped in front of me, purposely blocking the way.
I pushed him aside and he tumbled onto the floor. Giorgio and I elbowed our way out of the building. I was careful not to spill my Scotch on the rocks that I carried along with me.
Outside the paparazzi continued to swarm around us until we finally made our way down the street to the car. Giorgio jumped in the driver’s side and I hopped in the passenger side and he revved the engine. One overly zealous reporter planted himself in front of our car, refusing to budge while snapping photos of me through the windshield.
In exasperation, I raised my hand and gave him the finger. As soon as I saw the flash go off, I knew that I had made a gigantic mistake. When we got to the hotel, my first call was to the attaché at the Embassy to see if he could quash the picture. He must have been successful because the photo never showed up in the States.”
Roger Hargreaves curates the press collection of the Archive of Modern Conflict and the press photography section of the Photocaptionist. A lecturer, writer and curator, past awards include the Kraszna-Krausz Foundation Book Award and the Maine Golden Light Award for writing on photography. His recent exhibition and publication, Amore e Piombo [Love and Lead]: the Photography of Extremes in 1970s Italy, co-curated and co-edited with Federica Chiocchetti for the Archive of Modern Conflict, explore the ‘viscous mystery’ of the so-called ‘Years of Lead’ in Italy. In another life he would have enjoyed being a paparazzo in Fellini’s Rome.