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Nuclear Visions

The Atomic Explosion
R. Wayne Parsons
By Unidentified Photographer, Untitled 1950-60’s

This exhibition is a welcome complement to “Hiroshima Ground Zero 1945” now at ICP and currently reviewed in NYPR. While the ICP show focuses on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the photographs at Peter Blum document the extensive testing program undertaken by the US Government (primarily by the now defunct Atomic Energy Commission) in the first few decades of the Cold War.

This is a large exhibition of 66 vintage prints, its earliest images dating from 1945, the year the bomb was perfected and the year of its first use in warfare, continuing through 1962, a year before atmospheric tests were banned. Most images document tests done at the Nevada facility, the rest from the infamous Bikini atoll and other South Pacific islands. The show includes aerial photos of the explosion over Nagasaki as well.

For visual drama one would have welcomed a wall-sized print of one of the more photogenic explosions recorded here, though we are spared this privilege –- fortunately, some might argue –- by the mid-20th century practice of printing photographs mostly at letter size or the equivalent. But regardless of the size of the prints, atmospheric nuclear weapons tests produce images of an undeniable, austere beauty. The resulting clouds are most often described as “mushroom”, though they can just as appropriately be compared to certain species of jellyfish, with bulbous bodies floating above dangling tentacles. One explosion photographed from above looks very much like a fungus you might find on a forest floor or a fallen log. But in any case these analogies are misleading, as nuclear weapons are instruments of death, not agents of life.

 by unidentified photographer. Source:
By Unidentified Photographer, Atomic Cloud 1952

Despite the intense security surrounding most of the US nuclear weapons program, these photographs were not classified. Indeed, many were taken by photographers (largely anonymous now) working for major news services of the day such as Associated Press and United Press International. The US government invited journalists to cover these tests and encouraged news media to print photos of them, largely as a way of building public support for the nuclear weapons program.

One of the more rattling images in this exhibition shows a few hundred men identified as “newsmen, civilian defense officials and governors” seated on metal folding chairs arranged in rows on the desert dirt of the Nevada test site as they prepare to watch a nuclear explosion from a safe distance (generally about 7 miles or more). Several images show US soldiers deployed in the vicinity of the explosions; there is a whole story here about exposure of military personnel to harmful radiation as part of the early testing program, one that is not addressed here.

Anyone old enough will remember the Cold War and the place of the “A-Bomb” in both the political debate of the day and popular culture. An example of the latter in this show is a 1952 card of “Atom Bomb Blasts” from gambling mogul Benny Binion promoting the Horseshoe Club, his Las Vegas casino. No one ever accused Americans of lack of imagination when it comes to exploiting just about anything for financial gain.

One deficiency of this exhibition is skimpy annotation. We don’t learn much about nuclear weapons, the history of the bomb, the purpose of these tests, etc. But there is a voluminous literature available to anyone interested in the subject; Wikipedia is a convenient place to start.

If there is ever such a thing as a standardized history curriculum in American secondary schools, surely the Cold War and the nuclear arms race will be a mandatory lesson segment. These images, or others like them, should be part of the package.

The Atomic Explosion

Peter Blum Soho
99 Wooster St.
Lower Manhattan - West         Map

212 343 0441

Thursday, June 9 to
Friday, July 29, 2011
Hours: Summer Hours: Mon-Fri 10 to 6

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino
Making Caribbean Dance by Susanna Sloat
Central Booking Magazine
Soho Photo Gallery