Atomic Reactions: Photography in the Nuclear Age
Thoughts of nuclear culture have been brought top of mind by Vladimir Putin’s threats to use tactical nuclear weapons, the recent Oppenheimer movie , as well as concern over the discharge of Fukishima reactors’ radioactive wastewater into the Pacific Ocean. This week we plan to share how photography has described the Atomic Age. Today an introduction to photographic archives and images is in order for those who missed the first episode of this drama, the Cold War.
We grew up in America’s atomic age, our childhoods’ filled with both post-war promise and peril. In the late 1970’s our collaboration began with a photographic excursion to New Mexico. It was there we encounter the physical manifestations of nuclear evidence: four Air Force bases, White Sands Missile Range and other weapons test sites, the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Military surplus “grave yards,” quonset huts were scattered across the landscape. The New Mexico flag appropriated the giant nuclear reactor of our solar system, the sacred sun symbol of the indigenous Zia people.
Nuclear Archives. From the beginning of the 2.2 billion dollar Manhattan Project, our government created archival photographic documents and diagrams of every aspect of their scientific and technological achievements. The motivation was to record, justify and disseminate information about this unprecedented “battle of the laboratories.”
Viewing these photographic archives 75 years later, we must consider what may be missing, incongruous or misleading in this trove of images. There is always a political dimension to information—those who control the narrative have the power. Every archive must be viewed with skepticism to determine the conscious or unconscious bias of the creator.
Apparent from the scale of the Manhattan Project, this narrative is far more complicated than that of an elite group of chain-smoking geniuses, working feverishly while sequestered in New Mexico’s mountains. At it’s peak, the Project employed 130,000 workers, many from the surrounding communities . The long term health, social and economics effects on these Americans, the Downwinders , have still not been resolved satisfactorily.
Major sites of research, mining and nuclear production criss-crossed the country. To side-step Nuclear Test Ban Treaty requirements, underground testing was even conducted in rural areas of America . What is the atomic legacy in these communities, on the land and water?
The atomic bomb birthed the Cold War, with global consequences. Military documentation of dramatic test explosions, described a patriotic narrative of American power. Photographic evidence of more problematic
hidden contributions and unintended consequences, were presented as minor inconveniences endured for the greater good.
Commodore Ben Wyatt’s official request to the Bikini Islanders to leave their atoll for the purpose of nuclear testing.
In an explosion of victory hubris, our government assumed the role of defender of the free world and most Americas remained uncritical, distracted as they raced into the arms of post-War consumer culture.
Beneath the confidence, however, it can not be denied that four years of world war created an undercurrent of paranoia, manifest in the Red Scare and bolstered by the Korean War, creating a mindset we can’t begin to understand—so the arms race advanced across the globe.
Despite the illusion of safety, concerned photographers and scientists sought out the threats of a nuclear world and attempted to inform the public of its lethal consequences. An analogue clock face became the first symbol of threat devised by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
Photographers captured the aftermath of the atomic bomb bringing critical analysis and international awareness to the dark side of nuclear power. A steady stream of imagery took the form of protest, Atomic Photographers is a visual archive documenting the Japanese bombing and the many subsequent tests, disasters and devastating effects to the environment and local populations around the world.
Often the only reaction to overwhelming terror is a nervous laugh and a state of disbelief. We conclude with photographs of atomic kitsch.
While you’re here: visit Clay Lipsky’s series featured here in 2012. Atomic Overlook re-contextualizes our legacy of atomic tests in order to keep the reality of our post-atomic era fresh and omnipresent.
Barbara Ciurej and Lindsay Lochman are photographic collaborators. As an extension of their long-term examination of the landscape, their new book, BOMBSHELLS , addresses sex and death in the nuclear age.
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Atomic Reactions: Photography in the Nuclear AgeSeptember 12th, 2023