The Most Expensive Photo Ever


The title of the most expensive photo ever is a dubious one.  This list provides the reader with the most expensive photos ever bought, not the most expensive photo ever taken.

That latter honor probably belonged to the photo above, where the entire 12,000-strong workforce of Ford Motor plant at Highland Park where photographed in 1913 when the world’s first fully-fledged assembly line was installed at the plant.

Fittingly for a company whose axiom was “Time equals money”, the photo cost thousands of dollars. In 1913, Ford paid $2.34 a day — minimum wage then was $1 — and employed them for nine-hour working day. (The next year, he doubled the pay to $5 a day and reduced the daily work hours to eight). Assuming a working day lost because of the photo, Ford paid out $28,080 daily wages – almost equal to amount of seed money he had to found the company in 1903. To add to that, Ford lost out on making 600 cars (in 1913, Ford produced 250,000 cars annually), each of which cost $600. In total, the cost of the photo was over $9 million in 2013 dollars.

Ford himself was a grumpy, tyrannical figure. His employees were subjected to a Sociological Department, which forced them to change their hygiene, consumption, sexual, and social habits to fit in with Ford’s puritanical and health-obsessed worldview. His wage increases – today portrayed as a revolutionary act of magnanimity – was spurred by high employee turnover (370% in 1913) caused by these restrictions. Ford drove away two talented executives, Knudsen and Couzens; William Knudsen went on to turn around money-losing Chevrolet into an auto powerhouse.

When he died in 1946, Ford left behind a fortune of $ 188.1 billion (in 2008 dollars), which made him top five richest industrialists ever. When his company finally IPO’d in 1956, the company had the market capitalization of $3.2 billion (real US GDP that year was $460 billion) and its initial offering was so large that over two hundred Wall Street firms had to subscribe to it.

Neil Armstrong (1930 – 2012)

Neil Armstrong, a modern explorer and (more importantly for us at IP) the first photographer on the Moon, is dead, aged 82. 

As the primary photographer of the first successful manned lunar mission, Neil Armstrong appeared very infrequently in the photos he took on the Moon [1]. Yet, he was everywhere on the Sea of Tranquility during that short 2 hour 36 minutes sojourn; a bootprint here, a reflection there, and his larger-than-life shadow intimately looming behind the viewer in many photos.

Two men were equipped with four special Hasselblad 70mm cameras, two 16mm data acquisition cameras and one 35mm close-up stereoscopic camera. Altogether, they took 232 color and 107 black and white photographs on the surface of the moon. The cameras were left on the Moon to make room for lunar samples. The Hasselblads were fitted with a reseau plate — a piece of engraved glass between the lens and the film that add cross-hatches to the photos — in order to help NASA analyze the films later by creating a grid. In that event, many of the frames remained in NASA archives, until a project to digitize them was completed in 2004.

As for Neil Armstrong, I will send him off by paraphrasing Richard Nixon/William Safire:

In ancient days, men looked at the stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood. Neil Armstrong was one such man.

In his exploration, he stirred the people of the world to feel as one, and bound more tightly the brotherhood of man.

He will be mourned by his family and friends; he will be mourned by his nation; he will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send one of her sons into the unknown.


[1] Hopefully, I won’t die of heart attack in next couple of days as I fume over news agencies mislabeling Buzz Aldrin as Neil Armstrong in those lunar photos. 

Mushroom Clouds over Las Vegas

From Hoover Dam to Howard Hughes, Iconic Photos look back at the unlikely success of America’s last frontier town. 

Why Las Vegas? Until very recently, it was not the most accessible place, nor was it the most exclusive of gambling dens; its arid Nevadan weather was unforgiving. Yet it is “Gambling and Entertainment Capital of the World” and every year, near forty million tourists flock to this desert casino town to dole out almost 15 billion dollars. But Las Vegas’ such success was never actually guaranteed; fittingly, no other town in history owed more to luck and coincidences.

Its modern history began with the Hoover Dam; although the Federal Government went so far as to create an artificial city to separate construction workers from Vegas’ notorious red light district, bars, and gambling dens, it was to Sin City that Franklin Roosevelt came when he arrived to open the dam. By then, cheap electricity from the dam had flowed into the city and earned Fremont Street its nickname “Glitter Gulch” (thanks to bright lights from its 24-hour casinos). Soon, the mob moved in.

The next phase came with the U.S. Army and its nuclear testing on a dried lakebed just outside the city; people came to Las Vegas to stand on the edge of the desert, and feel the ground shake, smoke billow and glass shatter around them. They stayed at the Atomic View Hotel, ordered Atomic Hamburgers, Atomic Hairdos, and Atomic Cocktails (equal parts vodka, brandy, champagne with a splash of sherry). Strippers in the city’s clubs took on atomic-themed names befitting third-tier superheroes. For five years, the city chose Miss Atom Bomb who wore a swimsuit fashioned after a mushroom cloud and was crowned by a similarly fungiform tiara.

It was in this giddy (and one might assume, radioactive) atmosphere that an unknown Las Vegas photographer climbed atop a parking lot opposite city’s the then most famous casino, the Pioneer Club, to capture an atomic blast behind the famed neon cowboy, Vegas Vic. Nevada nuclear tests quickly went underground, and today, with the Fremont Street Experience ruining the vista, such a photo would not be possible.

Yet, Las Vegas proved to be durable. In the late 50s, the atomic enthusiasm dissipated and the city was so threatened by newer casinos in Havana that it passed a law preventing Nevadan casinos from investing in Cuba. Yet, historical forces intervened once again in the form of Fidel Castro and his communist revolution; business quickly returned to Las Vegas. Soon, another mustachioed maverick, this time the aviator Howard Hughes, would come to wrestle Fremont casinos away from organized crime. The Strip and the modern Las Vegas it represented would be just around the corner. Literally.

Smoking Beagles

It was not her coinage but Mary Beith, who died last month, provided an memorable photo behind the phrase, “Smoking Beagles”.  

In 1970, Dr. Oscar Auerbach revealed that he had trained 86 beagles to smoke and 20 of them developed cancers. It was an experiment that proved for the first time the link between large animals exposed to cigarette smoke and cancer; it caught the tobacco industry unaware and opened the floodgates as both sides frantically rushed to prove or disprove harmful effects of cigarettes via a frenzy of animal testing.

It was amidst this controversy that Mary Beith went to work for Imperial Chemical Industries in the summer of 1974, but she was different from other workers. She had been engaged by The Sunday People in Manchester to work undercover at various animal research laboratories. She chose ICI’s Macclesfield labs for the simple reason that it was close to her home.

She could not produce her insurance cards (which would betray her journalistic background) so she pretended they had been mislaid. It was just perhaps the trusting nature of those days, but the company gave her three days to find them or face dismissal. Inside, she saw beagles forced inhale as many as 30 cigarettes in a day to test ‘safe’ non-nicotine cigarettes, called New Smoking Material.

A darkroom was set up in a van parked near the lab and Beith was given a tiny camera, which she concealed in her bra. But when she took the film back, staff laughed at her efforts, one telling her: “The next time you take pics of those beagles, Mary, please be sure to take your finger off the lens!”

The next day, she smuggled in a larger camera and took the photo above. The paper sat on the story for several months until publishing it on 26th January 1975 on the frontpage. It coincided with Richard Ryder’s powerful book against animal testing, Victims of Science. These incidents provoked strong and violent backlashes from animal rights activists, and with the imprisonment of two such figures from the Animal Liberation Front, a new chapter in animal rights law would soon open.

As for Mary Beith, she won an award as campaigning journalist of that year; ironically for the reporter best remembered for an anti-tobacco story, she was a lifelong smoker and died last month after a long battle with an aggressive form of lung cancer.

Antony Barrington-Brown (1927-2012)

Antony Barrington-Brown, who captured the first pictures of Watson and Crick with their original model of the DNA double helix, has died. 

Watson and Crick, who would come to disagree about pretty much everything concerning their discovery as depicted in Watson’s grandiose bestseller, The Double Helix, also could not agree on exactly when a picture featured in Watson’s book was taken. That picture, of course, was the above photo of two young scientists with their original model.

Watson said the photo was taken in May 1953, shortly after the announcement of their discovery in Nature. Crick recalled that they made the large scale model for the Cavendish Laboratory’s open house in July of that year. But they do not dispute that the photo was taken by another Cambridge student, Antony Barrington-Brown, who recalled:

An undergraduate friend of mine aspiring to be a journalist sought out stories on his own account. One day he gave me a tip-off that someone at the Cavendish Laboratory had made an important discovery, so could I take a picture to go with his story which he wanted to offer to Time magazine? So it was that I set off on my bicycle towing a two-wheeled trolley which carried my tripod and lights. I dragged the trolley up several flights of stairs and knocked at the door of one of dozens of similar rooms where research students worked.

I was affably greeted by a couple of chaps lounging at a desk by the window, drinking coffee. “What’s all this about?” I asked. With an airy wave of the hand one of them, Crick I think, said “we’ve got this model” indicating an array of retort stands holding thin brass rods and balls. Although supposedly a chemist myself it meant absolutely nothing to me and fortunately they did not expose my ignorance by attempting to explain it in terms I might just have comprehended. Anyway, I had only come to get a picture so I set up my lights and camera and said “you’d better stand by it and look portentous” which they lamentably failed to do, treating my efforts as a bit of a joke. I took four frames of them with the model and then three or four back with their coffee.

My ‘snaps’ came out well enough and my friend fired them with his story off to Time, but they never used it and sent me half a guinea (52p) for my pains. Several historians have spent a lot of effort trying to establish when the pictures were first published, but I have never known.”

It is believed that the photos remained unpublished for at least 10 years. Even when Watson and Crick received the Nobel Prize in 1962, there was no sign of them. But all that changed with the publication of The Double Helix in 1968. Suddenly, Barrington-Brown’s photos was published in many magazines. In the 1970s, they were used to reconstruct the original DNA model which had fallen apart years earlier. For the 40th anniversary of the discovery, the photo was restaged with Watson and Crick in the same poses.

Only in the 1990s that the photographer fully began to realise just how much he was losing in royalties and a deal was struck with the distributors. In a final irony, not only did the photos which Barrington-Brown never considered his best made him more money than all the rest of his pictures put together, but Time magazine also had to pay considerably more for the photos than when they were first offered.

See Science Photo Library for the bigger versions of Barrington-Brown’s photos:

Best of the Rest

Tubular!!!: Cocoa Beach surfers watch Atlantis' launch on September 8, 2000.

To ponder the distant beginnings of the shuttle program is to concede what a different time it was. Sunny Ronald Reagan had just became president. Charlie’s Angels was still on television; the top song that summer was Kim Carnes’s Bette Davis Eyes. When the shuttle first went up, the personal computer revolution was just getting underway. Tandy and Apple were already out, but the most successful one, the IBM PC, was still months away from its debut.

The first shuttles were controlled by a computer running on only 500-kilobyte of RAM; it was upgrade to 1 MB only in 1991. During the past 3 decades the computer system performed flawlessly, and why replace something that has worked well? (More amazingly, since 1974, Soyuz ran on Argon-16 flight-computer software with just six kilobytes of RAM. In 2003, the Russians finally upgraded, and Soyuz disastrously crash-landed subsequently. So another reason not to replace.)

When the first shuttles went up, nothing captured the giddy sparefaring mood more than a new network that was launched later that summer. On August 1st, MTV was born with the words “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll,” accompanied by portentous images from launch and landing of Apollo 11. Instead of American flag, MTV’s logo unfurled changing colors, textures and designs. For the 81ers, space was totally fresh, rad, and choice.

That summer, a new generation of America was born; a small part of that generation died with the final shuttle.

(See The National Geographic’s The Most Unforgettable Space Shuttle Pictures).

Atlantis and Mir

As I wrote two days ago, the last time the photo of a space shuttle docked to a space station was taken, it was in 1995, when Atlantis docked with Russia’s Mir. In the photo above, taken by a Mir cosmonaut as Atlantis departed, five astronauts bid farewell to Mir after a three-day visit in November 1995. It was the third Mir-NASA missions, during which the shuttle used its robotic arm to attach a docking tunnel to the Mir, so that future shuttles could dock without getting too close to the station’s delicate solar panels.

On June 29th 1995, Atlantis became the first US spacecraft to dock with a Russian spacecraft since the Apollo-Soyuz mission two decades earlier. During the Cold War, Mir-NASA would have been not only unthinkable, but also antithetical to what the space shuttle stood for.

In fact, even the International Space Station was initially conceived as a Cold War venture; when he greenlit the project in 1984, Ronald Reagan harbored Kennedyesque ambitions to one-up the Soviets and their puny Mir. With their enormous cargo bays, the shuttles became a crucial tool for these ambitions. (Nothing revealed these Cold War ambitions more than the names of these space stations. Mir meant Peace, while throughout the 1980s, NASA planned to launch another space station called Freedom).

Then suddenly, the space race was history, and nine Mir-NASA missions were carried out between 1995 and 1997, with Atlantis only flying seven straight missions. Last months of the joint project were terse, as the mission battled near-disasters; the aging Mir posed many problems to the shuttle astronauts. When Mir was launched into orbit on Feb 20th 1986 — less than a month after the Challenger exploded, it was planned to be in orbit for only five years, but flew for thrice that length of time.  The Russians had initially planned to deorbit the abandoned Mir in early 2000, but thanks to some private investors, it lived for a year more. It finally came down on March 23rd 2001.

To Boldly Go ….

A Texan neighborhood gathers around Columbia's debris in 2002.

Editorial: You can just look at the photo above and skip this post if you want.

I have been receiving many messages — mostly negative, obviously, because only people who are seriously pissed about something bother to write complaints, although i appreciate the polite tone of most, if not all, of emails — regarding my criticism of “NASA”.

Unless you have been living under a rock, or doing something more productive than reading a blog (which is more likely), you would have noticed that I have been posting space photos lately. My commentaries accompanying most of them tend to point out shortcomings of the space shuttle program.

May be I wasn’t really clear; may be people just skim, but the readers miss the point. My criticism was solely targeted towards the space shuttle (and yesterday, the ISS), not against NASA and other spacefaring programs in general. I think Hubble was great (btw, it could have been delivered without space shuttles). I think Mars Rovers performed admirably. I don’t think NASA’s budget is bloated, but time, effort and money it devoted to space shuttle was unnecessary and unwise.

Unlike Apollo, Saturn or Gemini, the shuttles failed to deliver. Everywhere else, projects of such scale would be accompanied by failure standards; but the shuttle didn’t appear to have any, for if it had, it would have broken many of them (see the first post). As much as I hate to type this, I must admit the failure of space shuttle is the failure of capitalism and politics. Aerospace contractors loved that the shuttle launches cost so much. Boeing and Lockheed Martin which control the shuttle business through an Orwellian sounding consortium called the United Space Alliance, consistently lobbied against unmanned rockets as cheaper shuttle replacements. They were also helped by congressional delegations from Texas, Ohio, Florida and Alabama, where shuttle-flight-centers are based.

There are two additional issues I would like to discuss here; many point out that military budget far outpaces NASA’s. That’s true and I am no fan of huge defense budgets either (it’s another area where Orwellian consortia thrive) but this is a straw man argument. Secondly, many point out sidebenefits of space programs. Assuming that the same amount of budget that went to NASA had gone to other science projects, we can delve into hypotheticals. But I am not going to. This article which discusses myths and realities surrounding those sidebenefits will do a better job than I would.


The Things They Carried

In addition to astronauts and satellites, the shuttles hauled many mementos into space.

With countless telecommunication flotsam and jetsam drifting there, the space now resembles the Earth’s attic. Space shuttle mission took many a cherish keepsake, both personal and communal, into that shared space: monopoly pieces, the Olympic torch, a replica of the golden spike from the Transcontinental Railroad, and rocks from the top of Mt. Everest and the surface of the moon. The doomed Challenger carried with it a drawing of the earth made by a kid inside a concentration camp during the Holocaust. On the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, a cargo tag from the colony accompanied Atlantis.

There were often corporate sponsors too. Since the very first space shuttle flight in April 1981, M&Ms accompanied every mission, right up to the final one that’s currently underway. In 1985, at the giddy peak of the Cola Wars, Coca-Cola and Pepsi both went up, ostensibly to “test packaging and methods of dispensing the liquids in a microgravity environment”.

In the recent years, as the public support over the shuttle program slowly dwindled, the PR campaigns were stepped up. Luke Skywalker’s original lightsaber, Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story, and ashes of Star Trek’s creator Gene Roddenberry were sent up, highlighting the fine line between fantasy and reality. For fanboys everywhere, the last shuttle mission will carry an iPhone and an Android Phone skywards.

Sport fans are appeased by a wide variety of memorabilia that went up: the home plate from Shea Stadium, dirt from Yankee Stadium, jerseys if every shape and color, including Lance Armstrong’s Tour-de-France-winning yellow one. An astronaut threw a first pitch via video from the ISS. Three green NASCAR starter flags were included in a shuttle mission that began with: “Gentlemen, start your space shuttle main engines.”

The Challenger Disaster

I have previously written about it, but no history of shuttle program will be complete without one of its low points: the Challenger Disaster. 

Hours after the Challenger disaster, President Ronald Reagan addressed the nation. The astronauts had “slipped the surly bonds of Earth … to touch the face of God,” he said, quoting the poet-aviator John Gillespie Magee. But a more memorable quote that day was that of the mission control; as the shuttle exploded with seven astronauts onboard, an oddly detached commentary came: “Flight controllers here are looking very carefully at the situation. Obviously a major malfunction.”

Writing in the Washington Monthly five years before the disaster, Gregg Easterbrook warned that the shuttles’ solid rocket boosters were not safe. On that fatal day, the cold air created a rupture in a seal on one of the boosters, letting a jet of flame escape and igniting the fuel. The last words from Challenger were “We are go at throttle up!” — this application of maximum thrust turned out to be a fatal act.

It was assumed that some survived the initial explosion but subsequently perished during descent and impact. The crew’s remains were flown from Kennedy Space Center to Dover Air Force Base for formal identification. The above photo was taken at that poignant moment as seven fellow astronauts accompanied the caskets on the journey. The crew was buried in the Arlington National Cemetery. NASA buried all the remains of the Challenger in an old missile silo and sealed it with tons of concrete so the debris would never be auctioned off or commercially exploited.

The subsequent investigation, the Rogers Commission, was a revelation; engineers who knew about the boost-joint problem asked NASA not to launch that day and were ignored. NASA and its private contractors had at first failed to recognized the design flaw, then “failed to fix it and finally treated it as an acceptable flight risk”. In short, the commission noted that it was an “accident rooted in history”.

But interestingly, the committee recommended that essentially nothing change. No one was fired; no additional safety systems were added to the rocket boosters whose explosion destroyed Challenger; no escape-capsule system was even discussed. Easterbrook wrote, “Post-Challenger “reforms” were left up to the very old-boy network that had created the problem in the first place.”

Astrophotography | Thierry Legault

They look just like specks of dust on the surface of the sun, but those black dots were the silhouettes of the space shuttle and the International Space Station.

From this distance, you can really appreciate the immenseness of the sun and the space. The sun is 93 million miles away – several orders of magnitude farther than the shuttle and the space station’s orbital distance of some 250 miles. But comparison, the Hubble Telescope orbits at some 350 miles. Further still is the Earth’s much cluttered geostationary orbit – over 22,000 miles — the distance at which an object takes 24 hours to orbit the Earth, and usefully hovers consistently over the same point of planet and thus the home of many communication and geolocation satellites.

The above photo was taken by the French photographer Thierry Legault, whose specialty is in taking pictures of solar eclipses, planetary and satellite transits. Earlier this year, he caught the moment just 50 minutes before Atlantis docked with the ISS; to take the photo, he traveled to Madrid so he would be inside the narrow five-mile wide visibility band that stretched across Spain, southern France and Northern Italy.

It is an extraordinary image, considering that the actual event was visible for just 0.54 of a second, because of the speed of two spacecrafts. To catch the event, Legault had to use an extremely fast shutter speed, combined with a pin hole-sized aperture.

Follow me on twitter   — or better yet, follow Thierry Legault on Flickr.  

Space Walks

It was one of the most famous images of the Space Age. What many people didn’t realize was how far that “untethered space walk” travelled.  

Spacewalking was nothing new by the time space shuttles began to soar. In March 1965, the Russian Alexei Leonov became the first person to take a “walk” in space in an exercise that nearly went wrong. Three months later, American Ed White followed his lead, but  both were tied to their spacecraft.

It was left for two astronauts on the shuttle Challenger, Bruce McCandless and Robert Stewart, to try an untied version. With Robert Gibson taking photos from inside the shuttle with a Hasselblad, McCandless achieved this on February 7th 1984, becoming the first “human satellite” traveling at some 17,500 miles per hour.

He reached a distance of 320 feet, with the azure Earth 150 nautical miles below, but McCandless spent just a little more than an hour free-flying. Even today, spacesuits are awkward, unwieldy and uncomfortable; while spacewalks typically lasted no longer than three hours, the astronauts are often trapped in their suits for as long as 10 hours, and had to drink through straws.

Although McCandless’ photo inspired many sci-fi fantasies, his spacewalk would amount to nothing more than a stunt. After McCandless and Stewart, four other astronauts on later shuttles flew untethered, but after 1984, NASA stopped producing the nitrogen-powered jet pack (in that inelegant space jargon, known as Manned Maneuvering Unit). The shuttle’s robotic arm precluded the need for such daring spacewalks.

Today, a modified version of the jetpack is worn only as a emergency backup during spacewalks. It was smaller but by no ways capable of reaching the distances previously travelled.

 And there in a way is a metaphor for the American space programme.