New York Photo Review
from the NYPR Archives

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

Area Zero, 1945

Hiroshima Ground Zero 1945
R. Wayne Parsons
[Steel stairs warped by intense heat from burned book stacks of Asano Library, Hiroshima] by United States Strategic Bombing Survey, Physical Damage Division. Source: icp.org
[Steel stairs warped by intense heat from burned book stacks of Asano Library, Hiroshima 1945”

Need a reason why nuclear warfare is not a good idea? If so, go see “Hiroshima: Ground Zero 1945” at ICP.

This exhibition is based on an undeniably important collection of documentary photographs, the most comprehensive we have of one of the most important –- and terrifying –- events of the Second World War. In 1945, shortly after Japan surrendered as a result of suffering not one, but two, atomic bomb attacks on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Harry Truman (who, of course, authorized the use of the bomb in a successful gamble to force Japan to capitulate) sent the U. S. Strategic Bombing Survey to Japan to assess the damage in Hiroshima. This was strictly a self-serving mission, as the U.S. government wanted to understand the effects of a nuclear blast and how best to protect Americans from one or more in future conflicts. Seven photographers from Physical Damage Division Team 1 spent over a month methodically photographing the devastation –- and devastation is what there was, in quantities hard to imagine –- in over 1100 meticulously annotated photographs. 865 of these photos were published in a secret three-volume work “The Effects of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima Japan.” (A copy of this publication is presented in three display cases in the exhibition.) As a result of a sequence of events only alluded to rather than fully explained, a cache of over 700 of these original prints wound up at ICP in 2006. Sixty-two of them are on display in a small gallery. Anyone with an interest in warfare (especially nuclear warfare), Twentieth Century history, WWII, the Cold War, etc. will want to spend time with these images. Unfortunately, others may not find the exhibition so captivating, as most of the photographs don’t have much appeal for persons who just want to see visually arresting images.

This is not a user-friendly exhibition. These are small contact prints of black and white negatives, often printed with less attention to detail than one would learn at an ICP B/W printing course. Given the visually dense character of many of these images, it is difficult to study and appreciate them at such a small size, and the low lighting does not help. Magnifying glasses would be useful, but ICP does not provide them. Did ICP not consider reproducing some of these original photos at a larger size so we could more readily read the message they hold for us? Confounding the problem of studying these prints is that some framed photos are mounted very low (as little as two feet off the floor) while a few are unreasonably high (as much as seven feet) –- a consequence of an effort to display prints in a rough correspondence to the distance of the pictured structures from ground zero –- a nice touch, but I would prefer not to have to get down on my knees to inspect some of these photographs.

[Distorted steel-frame structure of Odamasa Store, Hiroshima] by United States Strategic Bombing Survey, Physical Damage Division. Source: icp.org
"Distorted steel-frame structure of Odamasa Store, Hiroshima" 1945

It would also be interesting to know more about the back story of this exhibition, including whether there were security breaches that led to the presence of the photos in a public collection. Does the U.S government still posses the original negatives, and, if so, are they in the public domain? When were the images declassified? Are other prints extant? How many copies are there of the three-volume report?

Photo captions are those of the original team members and are noteworthy for their deadpan clinical detachment. There is a good bit of unintended irony, as in the notation that one burned-out building was the home of the “Sumitomo Fire Insurance Company, Hiroshima Branch”. Occasionally captions border on the comic, as in “West elevation showing mass movement of building toward the South”. There is no explicit acknowledgment of the human tragedy to be found in these photos, understandable in that the team was sent to do a job as professionally as possible and not let their emotions interfere. It is our, the viewers’, responsibility to interpret and evaluate what these photographs show us in light of our values and our shared humanity.

One take-away from this exhibition is the inescapable, commonplace realization that “War is Hell”, especially war waged with the destructive power of nuclear weapons. Another is an early view of the Cold War mentality that so scarred the international scene for more than four decades. While the more-or-less satisfactory resolution of the Cold War over two decades ago is cause for relief, the growth of terrorism and the proliferation of nuclear weapons in unstable and/or aggressive countries such as Pakistan and North Korea are grim reminders that mankind has yet to emerge from beneath the pall of possible nuclear catastrophe.


Hiroshima Ground Zero 1945


International Center of Photography
1133 Ave of the Americas
Midtown         Map

212 857 0000
icp.org

Friday, May 20 to
Sunday, August 28, 2011
Hours: Tues - Sun, 10 to 6; Fri to 8
Share

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