New York Photo Review
Volume 3 Issue 1 January 10 to 16, 2012


Selected Shows 2011
R. Wayne Parsons
Untitled (Atomic Bomb Explosion) by Photographer unknown. Source: peterblumgallery.com
Photographer unknown, "Untitled (Atomic Bomb Explosion)" 1950s-1960s

Looking back on 2011, I find I was most taken by exhibitions that dealt with significant social and political issues. Although the cold war is now more than two decades behind us, it remains one of the most important events of the twentieth century. Persons in need of a refresher course, or who are too young to have pregnant memories, found suitable material in “The Atomic Explosion” at Peter Blum Gallery. This fascinating exhibition featured vintage photographs of A-bomb explosions undertaken as part of the weapons development program of the US government in the early years of the cold war, from the mid 1940s to the early ‘60s. Much of the motivation for these photos was to build support among the American population for nuclear armaments. Open-air testing ceased, as did the opportunity for making more of these austerely beautiful, disturbing images, when in 1962 both sides agreed to a moratorium on above-ground nuclear testing, and more surprisingly, generally adhered to its terms.

Hiroshima Ground Zero 1945” at ICP was not officially a companion exhibition to the Blum show, though it admirably served that purpose. After the Japanese surrender following the atomic bomb destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (the only occasions nuclear weapons have been used in warfare – one can only wonder how long this statement will remain true) the US government sent a team of photographers to document the effects of nuclear weapons on civil society. One should remember that at this time nuclear weapons were brand new and little was known about their effects, how they might be deployed in warfare, and so forth. Hence this photographic fact-finding mission. Not surprisingly, the results were sobering, though they did nothing to retard the nuclear arms race that followed. The vintage photos that comprise this exhibition had been thrown away by an Atomic Energy Commission scientist, but were miraculously salvaged by a neighbor rummaging through the trash.

Another show I found particularly engrossing was “Time Exposures: Picturing a History of Isleta Pueblo in the 19th Century” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York at Bowling Green in lower Manhattan. This exhibition of vintage prints from the 1880s through the 1920s documents traditional life in the pueblo: how it was affected by the white man, and how these native Americans continue to struggle to retain their cultural identity. Fortunately, those who missed this show need not consider themselves deprived, as it remains open through mid June, 2012.

Iron workers cut the remaining structure of the North Tower, 12/16/2001], from Above Ground Zero. by Gregg Brown. Source: icp.org
Gregg Brown, "Iron workers cut the remaining structure of the North Tower, 12/16/2001], from Above Ground Zero." 1945

Remembering 9/11” at ICP is undeniably memorable. Most impressive in this multi-part exhibition is “Memory Remains: 9/11 Artifacts at Hangar 17.” Selected debris from the World Trade Center site was archived in an empty hangar at JFK airport, and Francesco Torres was commissioned to make a visual document of these artifacts. His images are appropriately projected bill-board size on the walls of the gallery. I find these objects most affecting when isolated from their surroundings and photographed still-life style. A mammoth photo of a huge structural girder twisted like a pretzel conveys more to me of the destructive power of the attack than the now-familiar photos of the piles of debris after the collapse. Further emphasizing the extraordinary violence and fury of the catastrophe are photos of “composites,” construction materials transformed into huge compacted objects, themselves suitable art works for an unsettled time, by the tremendous pressure and heat at the bottom of the pile of debris. One could say hell had been relocated from the bowels of the earth to lower Manhattan. Closing the exhibition, emotionally if not literally, is a photograph of a small paper boat that was fashioned from a folded Port Authority brochure and found in a PATH train trapped in one of the tunnels after the event. The boat itself is displayed in the gallery, the only artifact photographed by Torres to make an “in-the flesh” appearance. The impact of this simple object is overwhelmingly moving; it is easy to visualize it ferrying the souls of the victims across the waters of death to a place offering us, if not solace, perhaps a modicum of hope.

Selected Shows 2011 by R. Wayne Parsons

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