In our collective unconscious the atom bomb is synonymous with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But since 1945 it has been documented that more than 2079 nuclear bombs have been detonated on Earth. Since the end of the Second World War, nuclear power countries have methodically bombed their own lands. Self mutilation in the name of self defense.

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David Farhi, Anecdotal radiations

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Copa Room showgirl Lee Merlin poses in a cotton mushroom cloud swimsuit as she is crowned "Miss Atomic Bomb 1957." Photo Credit: Don English/ Las Vegas News Bureau/Las Vegas Sun

Anecdotal Radiations is a series that uncovers the unknown, forgotten and often very strange stories surrounding nuclear armament and testing programs. A couple of the anecdotes are well-known such as the Miss Atomic Bomb pageant or the story of the bikini. Others are downright baffling: the chicken vaporized when a nuclear bomb is dropped by mistake, the taste of a beer after a nuclear explosion, the ultra secret activation code on all American nuclear weapons set to "00000000", etc.

David Fathi has collected archive photos, satellite imagery, packshots and road-trip photos. By adding his own images to the archive documents, the photographer orchestrates a series of baffling, yet true, stories that illustrate the discrepancies that exist between the world we have created and the world we believe we live in.

I discovered the series last month at the festival Photo Ireland and the more i read about these anecdotes on Fathi's website, the more i thought i should get in touch with him and interview him:

Hi David! What inspired you to have a look at some of the 'unfamiliar stories and anecdotes' about nuclear bombing and experiments?

I believe my fascination started a couple of years back with one image.

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Nuclear explosion photographed less than one millisecond after detonation. From the Tumbler-Snapper test series in Nevada, 1952, showing fireball and "rope trick" effects. The fireball is about 20 meters in diameter in this shot

This is the photo of a nuclear explosion, just a couple of milliseconds after its detonation. At the time, nothing could capture such images, and scientists had to design an entirely new high-speed camera. I was mesmerized by this photo, as it is a scientific document of something terrifying but seems so abstract and beautiful.

We normally have this very clear image of the atomic bomb as a mushroom cloud, and here we have a photo that completely changes our perception of it, by showing its origin.
I wanted to find a way to talk about this image in a project some day, but hadn't found the right approach yet.

Last year I finally started researching nuclear testing, and it was like going down the rabbit hole. I knew, just like everybody else, that nuclear testing happened during the cold war. But I had never really stopped to think about what that meant. When I thought about the bomb, Hiroshima and Nagasaki is what came to mind, even though since then, more than two thousand bombs have detonated on earth.

The more I researched, the weirder it got. When trying to deal with the gap between weapons of unfathomable power and the human stories of the men who try to master them it becomes absurd, terrifying and darkly funny.

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David Farhi, Anecdotal radiations

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David Farhi, Anecdotal radiations

The series mixes archival photos, satellite imagery, packshots and road-trip photos. How do you combine them? do you start with archive material and then add your own images to fill some gaps, for example?

I start with an anecdote. After enough research, I find this small story that is totally true, but seems unreal. It becomes one of the building blocks around which I start gathering photos.

Then I list the typologies of photos I want to use (satellite imagery, archives, packshots, roadtrip) and try to find how I can illustrate in a literal fashion the story. Once I have gathered enough material, it seems very factual and straightforward. That's when I try to break it up, and find images that are more metaphorical and only tangentially related to the story.

The aim is to create a documentary based on facts, but the result seems like fiction. So it's all about finding a balance between precise documentation and playful deconstruction.

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David Farhi, Anecdotal radiations

Some of the experiments you selected for the series seem to have been conceived by brazen, unconscious minds. There are also accidental releases of nuclear bombs too. Do you you think the military is more cautious nowadays or are there still some dangerous experiments taking place? How much do you think is still hidden from us?

I'm close to finishing my project, and I'm trying to find a couple of stories that are more recent, so that people remember that nuclear weapons are not just a thing of the past and more probably something we will have to continue dealing with for centuries to come.
So here are a couple of things that we learned recently about the United States nuclear program:

- In August 2007, six nuclear warheads were loaded by mistake on a military plane. When it landed, nobody knew the devices were on board. The plane was left unguarded on the tarmac for 36 hours before people realized what was happening.

- In September 2013, the n°2 officer in charge of Nuclear Command was fired for gambling with counterfeit poker chips.

- In December 2013, one of the top generals in command of nuclear armament was fired for an incident in Moscow where he was seen with Russian escort girls drunkenly boasting about what he was in charge of.

- In March 2014, 82 nuclear launch officers were implicated in a cheating scandal on their security exams.

These are just stories uncovered by the press in the USA, as Russian, Chinese, French, British, Israeli, etc. Nuclear programs are very tightly kept under wraps. It's nearly impossible to get relevant data about those.

With all of this in mind, I find it hard to understand how nuclear armament is not more prominent in the news.

Could you pick up some of the images you selected from archives or made yourself and comment what they are about? Explaining why you chose them from archives or why and how you made them? (i started selecting the photos that intrigued me the most but i ended up with so many of them i decided i'd let you chose instead)

This photo is an actual press archive of Spanish minister for information and tourism Manuel Fraga Iribarne and US ambassador Angier Biddle Duke swimming near Palomares, Spain, after the crash of a B-52 bomber and the loss of four nuclear warheads. All to assure the local population that everything is safe and under control.
The manipulation on top of Fraga is a superposition of the satellite image of a nuclear crater.

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David Farhi, Anecdotal radiations

Speaking of satellite imagery, I printed out photos of nuclear impacts. I then created these sculptures for two reasons. Firstly they seem like rocks & minerals, alluding to the melted rocks you can actually find on sites where nuclear bombs were tested. And secondly to give these images a 3D existence. All these "scars" are visible just by going on Google Earth, but we still don't really know they exist, so maybe by giving them this three-dimensional quality they can appear as more "real".

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David Farhi, Anecdotal radiations

This photo was taken on the road between Nevada and California. There have been some lawsuits around these regions by communities who claim having been exposed "downwind" from the Nevada Test Site. I took quite a few photos along this path, looking for semi-fictional traces of these stories.

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David Farhi, Anecdotal radiations

This is a screenshot from the documentary Atomic Café, a great source of information that everybody should watch. The movie has an incredible wealth of obscure archival films of the cold war era. This particular clip is still amazing to me, as I have found no clue to where it came from. It's part of a long list of absurdities you stumble upon when doing research on the subject (like Nuclear War card games, Miss Atom Bomb beauty pageants, etc)

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David Farhi, Anecdotal radiations

What were your objectives in publishing this series of photos. Was it purely informative and anecdotical or is there a more socially engaged or political motivation behind the series?

My interest in this subject is mainly psychological. The politics of nuclear armament seem pretty easy. Even people in charge of such programs do not see nuclear bombs as a good thing. So how do we deal intellectually with their continuing existence?

There is a huge dissonance between the world we imagine we live in and the one we actually live in. The over-the-top consequences of nuclear bombs are so immense that we naturally shut it out of our minds. My objective is not to say nuclear bombs are bad (that is quite a boring statement and everybody agrees), but more to force people to question everything, entities of power as much as their own selves.

Governments and media have of course their role in keeping out of reach the implications of nuclear weapons, but we as individuals have as much a responsibility in comprehending history, science and human knowledge. In telling these small anecdotes, I try and use humor, terror, and a general playfulness to try to suck in the viewer, and get him or her to question what they think they know.

I hope this series is more about confronting our own way of perceiving the world, and how to think critically of the consequences of our decisions.

In fact the best thing for me would be if people would even call into question my own photos and stories. I'm telling you all this is true, but you'd be better off by doubting and starting your own investigation.

Thanks David!

Sponsored by:





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Facade of the Open Eye Gallery. Paul Morrison, Urformen © Photo Paul Karalius

Last month, i visited the Liverpool Biennial. It was boring (BO-RING) but it was still worth the trip. One: because I love Liverpool and i'm happy as long as people around me have that cute accent. Two: because of the show at the Open Eye Gallery. It is part of the official programme of the biennial but it was one of the few shows in town that made me think and reflect upon the art world and the way it is represented/represent itself.

Not All Documents Are Records: Photographing Exhibitions as an Art Form looks at photographic works that bring a critical and artistic gaze on some of the most important art events in the world and asks the question: "Can photography be the site where the history of an exhibition is produced and still retain its independent artistic autonomy, thus overcoming pure documentation?"

Four bodies of works are brought together to make us reflect on this question. Two are contemporary, they are by Cristina De Middel of the Afronauts fame and by Ira Lombardia. The other two, by Ugo Mulas and Hans Haacke respectively, are historical.

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Venice, 1968. Workers protests, XXXIV Esposizione Biennale Internazionale d'Arte Photo Ugo Mulas © Ugo Mulas Heirs

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Venice, 1968. Student protests, XXXIV Esposizione Biennale Internazionale d'Arte Photo Ugo Mulas © Ugo Mulas Heirs

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Photo © Paul Karalius

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Photo © Paul Karalius

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Venice, 1968. Room of Rodolfo Aricò, XXXIV Esposizione Biennale Internazionale d'Arte. Photo Ugo Mulas © Ugo Mulas Heirs

I'm going to start with Ugo Mulas' take on the Venice biennale of 1968. I knew the photographer's work for his portraits of the superstars of the art world in the 1960s. But the photos exhibited at the Open Eye Gallery are miles away from the glamour you might expect from the Venice event.

Mulas had been covering each edition of the Venice biennial since 1954. The images in the gallery date from 1968, a year marked by social uprisings around the world (Mai 68 in France, anti-Vietnam war demos, etc.) The art biennial, which naturally echoes changes in society, experienced similar turmoils. Students and intellectuals took to the street to protest against the establishment represented by the Venice Biennale, brandishing banners that denounced the "policed biennial of the bourgeoisie" (policemen were indeed guarding the entrance of the Giardini) and claiming that 'La Biennale è fascista.'

They also questioned the institution itself on matters such as freedom of speech and vilified it for its sales department, accusing the biennial of being a capitalist playground for the rich. The biennale's board subsequently dismantled the sales office.

In solidarity, some of the participating artists covered up their works, withdrew their work, turned them over or wrote over "in these conditions i'm not working."

Mulas photographed the most salient moments of the opening: the protests, the curators carelessly drinking spritz on Piazza San Marco, the police crackdown against demonstrators, etc.

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Photographic Notes, documenta 2, Gonzales Nun, 1959 © Hans Haacke © DACS, London

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Photographic Notes, documenta 2, Kandinsky, Micky Mouse, 1959 © Hans

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Photographic Notes, documenta 2, Léger Family, 1959 © Hans Haacke © DACS, London

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Photographic Notes, documenta 2, Cleaning Women, 1959 © Hans Haacke © DACS, London

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Photographic Notes, documenta 2, Magritte 2 Profiles, 1959 © Hans Haacke © DACS, London

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Photographic Notes, documenta 2, Pollocks, Large Group, 1959 © Hans Haacke © DACS, London

The context of Hans Haacke's photos of the second edition of Documenta in Kassel is very different from the one of the 1968 biennial. Founded in 1895, the Venice biennial is the oldest exhibition of its kind. Documenta was created 60 years later as a means for bringing Germany up to speed with the most modern and contemporary art forms that had been banned under Nazi's politics of artistic obscurantism and censorship.

Haacke, still a student at the Art Academy in Kassel in 1959, worked as an exhibition guard for the second edition of Documenta. In his free time, he independently took on the task of visually 'documenting Documenta'. The 26 black and white images hanging on the walls of the Open Eye Gallery are witty and full of humour. Instead of being strictly about the art exhibited, the images display Haacke's interest into the rituals and peculiarities of an art event. They show how absurd the dialogue between artworks and viewers can be. A family attempts to find some relationship between a description in the catalogue and the work hanging on the wall. A young boy is far more interested in mickey magazine than in the Kandinski hanging behind his back. Other photos gives us a glimpse of what happens behind the curtains of the art world: cleaning ladies doing their job, a Moore sculpture waiting next to a pile of bricks to be carried to the exhibition room.

Nowadays, most of us have seen images of the kind. The museum photos of Thomas Struth or Martin Parr's sneaky portraits of collectors at Dubai Art Fair, for example. In 1959, photographers' sociological explorations of the art world were pretty unusual.

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Cristina De Middel. Photo © Paul Karalius

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Cristina De Middel

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Cristina De Middel

Cristina De Middel was invited by the gallery to imagine what the future edition of the Liverpool Biennial would be like. The commission came as the preparations for the event were underway.

Instead of going into wild speculations, the photographers looked for evidence in the archives of photography and press cuttings that documented past editions of the event. She then used and remixed the images and headlines in prints that cover the walls of the first room of the gallery.

To create her collage, she contacted both the photographers who had made the original images and the artists whose work appear in the photo. The photographers gave her the permission to use and rework their images. Many of the artists, to my great surprise, refused. So while artists have been constantly borrowing and re-appropriating other artists works to create new ones, they negate photographers the possibility to do so. Does that mean that a photographer is not an artist? That they can only produce images that document? To meet their censorship, De Middel painted over the artworks appearing in the photos, blurring and often even distorting their contour. Her new body of work interrogates thus the authenticity of photography (something she had done previously with the Afronauts, a series that charted the 1964 Zambian space programme which never actually came to its full realization) and highlights the tension between creativity and documentation that the photographic medium encompasses.

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Ira Lombardia, And I Think to my selffffffffff what a wonderful worlllllllllld, 2012. Photo by Paul Karalius

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And I Think to my selffffffffff what a wonderful worlllllllllld © Ira Lombardia, 2012

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And I Think to my selffffffffff what a wonderful worlllllllllld © Ira Lombardia, 2012

Upstairs, i almost missed the work of Ira Lombardía. During her visit of the last edition of Documenta, the artist saw a light phenomenon on the floor of one of the exhibition gallery. She mistook it for an authentic work of art (such confusions happen to the best of us when dealing with contemporary art.) Lombardía took a photo of it and went on to create a whole narrative around it. She invented an artist and a description for the artwork that never was. She then copied faithfully the catalogue of the Documenta exhibition and substituted one of the artworks by her photo of the light phenomenon and added the bio of her fictitious artist. She later wrote a letter of apology to the artist whose name and work she had removed from the catalogue.

Not All Documents Are Records: Photographing Exhibitions as an Art Form, curated by Lorenzo Fusi, remains open until 19 October 2014 at the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool.


Guest exploring wind turbine in Q121. Image György Kőrössy

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Outside view of Q121. Image György Kőrössy

I know you're not supposed to ever be tired of London but if you feel like a change of atmosphere, there's some rather spectacular disused wind tunnels to gape at in Farnborough, a mere 35 minute train ride from Waterloo station.

The Wind Tunnel project filled with site-specific commissions two wind tunnels buildings, known as R52 and Q121, that were built to test planes, from Spitfires to Concorde. These buildings were decommissioned after the 1960s and have remained closed to the public ever since.

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A Bristol Bulldog TM, K3183 fitted with a Napier Rapier I engine, suspended in the 24ft Q121 wind tunnel, 1935. Photo courtesy of Farnborough Air Sciences Trust

Opened in 1935, Q121 is the largest wind tunnel in Great Britain. Inside, two gigantic holes face each other. One is a powerful fan with 600kg blades which would drag air fast and furious across the space between them to test complete planes and sections of bigger airplanes.

R52 was built in 1917. It is now an empty hangar but it used to house one of the world's earliest aerodynamic testing facilities.

Contemporary artworks by James Bridle and Thor McIntyre-Burnie explore the past of the buildings.

McIntyre-Burnie's sound pieces makes use of archive materials from the BBC to fill the impressive Q121.

The basis of his sound work is an outside recording made by the BBC of the song of a nightingale in 1942 in a garden in Surrey. It was a yearly broadcast since 1924 but this year, the microphone accidentally picked up the sound of RAF bombers flying overhead on their way to Germany. The program had to be interrupted, for fear it would have tipped off Germany about the upcoming bombing attack.

McIntyre-Burnie's new composition fills the wind tunnel. It doesn't try and compete with the impressive structure (that would be foolish.) In fact, it make the whole experience of going through the historical space even more awe-inspiring.

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In Q121

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In Q121


In Q121

One of Bridle's works, Rainbow Plane 001, also paid homage to the history of the site. The installation outlines the silhouette of a Miles M.52, an experimental supersonic aircraft developed in secret to break the sound barrier at Farnborough in the early 1940s.

The contour is shown as if distorted by the pansharpening effect of satellite photography, as if viewed, in flight, from space. There never was any original photography of that Miles M.52 in flight. First of all because, the aircraft never flew. It was a research project that was cancelled in 1946 even though its aerodynamics had been successfully demonstrated by a scale model. Besides, satellites don't take 'photos' of what lays below them. Instead, they use sensors to look down onto the earth and acquire information about its surface and atmosphere.

Rainbow Plane 001 is ducted tapped under the site's portable airship hangar. The structure was one of the 6 airship sheds in the UK at the outset of WWI and it probably isn't as 'portable' as its name suggests. It is estimated that it would take 50 men ten days to dismantle the structure, 7 to load it onto railway and 2 to 3 weeks to reassemble it.

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James Bridle, Rainbow Plane 001. Image György Kőrössy

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James Bridle, Rainbow Plane 001. Image György Kőrössy

The Wind Tunnel Project was organised by Artliner and curated by Salma Tuqan. I must say that the website of the project is one of the most frustratingly dysfunctional i've ever visited. Anyway, you can see the tunnels and artworks in Farnborough until the 20th of July. A shuttle service is helpfully available outside the Farnborough railway station.

More images from the wind tunnel (I also posted a photo set from the opening on flickr, if ever you're interested):

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Launching paper planes in R52

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Control room for wind turbine in R52. Image Shaun Jackson

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Control room for wind turbine in R52. Image Jay McLaughlin

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Support structure underneath R52 wind turnbine. Image Jay McLaughlin

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Inside R52 turbine. Image Jay McLaughlin

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Inside wind tunnel in R52. Image Jay McLaughlin

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Testing of fir tree root loads for the Forestry Commission in 1967. Image courtesy of FAST (Farnborough Air Sciences Trust) Museum

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Wind tunnels project Testing of the Short Belfast aircraft in 1968. Photograph: Courtesy of Farnborough Air Sciences Trust

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In R52

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In R52

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In R52

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In R52

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In Q121

The Sick Rose" Disease and the Art of Medical Illustration, by academic medical historian Dr Richard Barnett.

Available on Amazon UK and USA.

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Publisher Thames and Hudson writes: The Sick Rose is a visual tour through the golden age of medical illustration. The nineteenth century experienced an explosion of epidemics such as cholera and diphtheria, driven by industrialization, urbanization and poor hygiene. In this pre-color-photography era, accurate images were relied upon to teach students and aid diagnosis. The best examples, featured here, are remarkable pieces of art that attempted to elucidate the mysteries of the body, and the successive onset of each affliction. Bizarre and captivating images, including close-up details and revealing cross-sections, make all too clear the fascinations of both doctors and artists of the time. Barnett illuminates the fears and obsessions of a society gripped by disease, yet slowly coming to understand and combat it. The age also saw the acceptance of vaccination and the germ theory, and notable diagrams that transformed public health, such as John Snow's cholera map and Florence Nightingale's pioneering histograms, are included and explained. Organized by disease, The Sick Rose ranges from little-known ailments now all but forgotten to the epidemics that shaped the modern age.

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The feet of an infant with hereditary syphilis, showing the skin covered in pustules. Photograph: Wellcome Library, London

The images in the book might not be to everyone's taste. They date back from the late 18th century to the early 20th century, a time when medicine was moving away from the principles of Hippocratic humoralism that saw the body as unified whole and starting to see disease as a form of specific physical disorder. It's no coincidence that in the early 19th century, Mary Shelley would imagine Victor Frankenstein, a scientist who subverted the integrity of the body and created his living creature by assembling parts originating from various human corpses.

The period also saw the beginning of the mass-production of books for the education of medicine students. The medical images these books contained were the result of a collaboration between several professions. Physicians, surgeons and anatomists would first secure, dissect and prepare bodies. Draughtsmen would then be called to reproduce the subject in great details and under the guidance of the medicine man. Finally, engravers would cut woodblocks or copper plates as mirror images of the illustration. The anatomical reality would thus have to be filtered by the minds, eyes and hands of subjective humans. That's without taking into account any further involvement of the printers and publishers.

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A 13-year-old boy with severe untreated leprosy. Photograph: Wellcome Library, London

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Severe tubercular leprosy (or ichthyosis) of the hand. Photograph: Wellcome Library, London

The Sick Rose is a wonderful book. Not just because of the eye-catching illustrations but because Richard Barnett is a talented narrator. And the stories he tells are fascinating.

First of all, there is the origin of the corpses to dissect and portray. At first, they came from the gallows. Starting in 1752, the sentence for murder in English courts included indeed public dissection. Body snatchers would supply corpses of pregnant women and foetus and any extra cadaver if needed. The 1832 Anatomy Act, however, abolished the dissection of executed criminals but allowed anatomy schools to use the body of anyone who had died unclaimed in hospitals. Which means that it was no longer crime that lead you to the dissection table, it was poverty.

Then there are the stories that accompany each disease studied in the book. Leprosy, aka the "Imperial Danger", that reappeared in the 19th century when doctors and missionaries traveled to tropical colonies. Smallpox and how the first vaccine was successfully developed with the help of pretty milkmaids. Venereal diseases and syphilis in particular which was treated by injection or ingestion of mercury. Et cetera.

My favourite page in the book may well be page 246, aka "Places of Interest", a list of the pathology museums, anatomy museums, medical history centers and other public collections of all things bodily and gruesome. I'm definitely going to drop by some of those in the coming weeks.

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Left: The face of a male patient showing rupia, a severe encrusted rash associated with secondary syphillis. Right: A woman's face, affected with lesions of impetigo. Prince A. Morrow, Atlas of Skin and Venereal Diseases including a brief treatise on the pathology and treatment, London, 1898

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Left: A man with a large pendant hip tumour. Right: A man with a large pendant face tumour. Lam Qua

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A child with blisters and other lesions affecting the skin. Photograph: Wellcome Library, London

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Diffused and spotted pulmonary apoplexy in a tubercular lung, drawn by Berhari Lal Das at the Medical College of Calcutta in 1906. Photograph: St Bartholomew's Hospital Archive

Views inside the book:

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The Guardian has a photo gallery.

Dr Richard Barnett will have a conversation with journalist and historian Frances Stonor Saunders about 'The Sick Rose' on June 19 at the Wellcome Collection.

Related story: Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men.

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Mauser and Bullet, 1938

The Michael Hoppen Gallery has just opened an exhibition featuring a selection of vintage prints by Dr. Harold Edgerton, a photographer whose works are found hanging in art museums and galleries across the world. He even won an Oscar with his short film Quicker 'n a Wink. Yet, Edgerton was adamant that he was a scientist, not an artist.

The professor of electrical engineering at MIT invented the ultra-high-speed and stop-action photography when he synchronized strobe flashes with the motion being examined, then took a series of photos through an open shutter that could flash up to 120 times a second. The invention enabled him to photograph motion that was too fast to be captured by the naked eye: balloons at various stages of bursting, bullets tearing through fruits, divers rotating through the air, devil sticks in action, an egg hitting a fan, drops of milk coming into contact with liquid, etc.

If that were not enough, Edgerton was also involved in the development of sonar and deep-sea photography, and his equipment was used by marine biologist Jacques-Yves Cousteau to scan the sea floor for shipwrecks. Or for the Loch Ness monster.

During the Second World War, he pioneered superpowered flash for aerial photography used to create night time reconnaissance images, revealing the absence of German forces at key strategic points just prior to the Allied attack on June 6, 1944.

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Bobby Jones, Golf Multiflash (Iron), 1938

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.30 Bullet through Apple, 1964

To trigger the flash at the right moment, a microphone, placed a little before the apple, pickes up the sound from the rifle shot, relays it through an electronic delay circuit, and then fires the microflash (via.)

Moments after the apple was pierced by the bullet, it disintegrated completely.

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Bullet through a Helium Bubble

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Bullet through King, 1964

A .30 caliber bullet, traveling 2,800 feet per second, requires an exposure of less than 1/1,000,000 of a second. Edgerton turned the card sideways and the rifling of the barrel caused the rotation of the projectile, which, in turn, carved out the S-shaped slice of card between the two halves (via.)

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Atomic Bomb Explosion, circa 1952 (more images)

After World War II, the Atomic Energy Commission contracted Edgerton and two of his former students to photograph atomic bombs as they exploded. The trio developed the rapatronic (for Rapid Action Electronic) shutter, a shutter with no moving parts that could be opened and closed by turning a magnetic field on and off.

Revealing the anatomy of the first microseconds of an atomic explosion, the fireball was documented in a 1/100,000,000-of-a-second exposure, taken from seven miles away with a lens ten feet long. The intense heat vaporized the steel tower and turned the desert sand to glass (via.)

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Untitled (Rugby ball), 1938

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Gussie Moran, 1949

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View of the gallery space

The exhibition Dr. Harold Edgerton: Abstractions is at the Michael Hoppen Gallery in London until 2 August 2014.
Image on the homepage: Antique Gun Firing, 1936.

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Herbert Hoffmann, Navy-men on a fleet visit in Hamburg, 1966. Photo: © Courtesy Herbert Hoffmann and Galerie Gebr. Lehmann Dresden/Berlin

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View of the exhibition space. Image AFP via Le Matin

The musée du Quai Branly, my favourite Paris museum, has recently opened a fascinating show called Tattooists, tattooed. I haven't stopped telling people they should go and see it if they happen to be in town in the coming months. In town and french speaking preferably because a large part of the information in the gallery spaces hasn't been translated in english.

I was expecting the usual about tattoos: the criminals, the freak shows, the Māori warriors, the virtuosity of contemporary tattoo artists. I certainly found all of that in the show. I wasn't however expecting to be shocked by the way tattoos were used to mark women.

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Armenian Woman With Identification Scarring on Chest, 1919. Credit: © Underwood & Underwood/Corbis

In the 1920s, thousands of Armenian girls and women managed to escape the Genocide of their people by feeling to Syria. They were kept in slavery and forced into prostitution. In order to identify them and prevent their escape, their pimps tattooed their face and arms.

The girl in the photo above had just been rescued from a Turkish house and was cared for by the Y.W.C.A. workers at Aleppo.

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Charles H. Carpenter, Ainu Woman, 1904

The significance of the tattoos worn by Ainu women couldn't be more different. In the Ainu culture of Northern Japan, only women tattooed and were tattooed. The traditional practice was a prerequisite to marriage and to the afterlife. Mouth tattoos were started at a young age with a small spot on the upper lip. The design would gradually increase in size over the years.

The exhibition looks at tattoo through ages and cultures. It also demonstrates that tattooing is an art in constant evolution that traverses all continents, even if its essence, acceptance and purpose differ from one culture to another. While in societies from the Oriental, African and Oceanian worlds, tattooing had a social, religious and mystical role, the West saw it as a mark of shame. In the past, only criminals, prostitutes, sailors, circus freaks and other marginals would wear one. Or many.

The exhibition displays 300 historical and contemporary artefacts, including photographs, prints, paintings, posters, short films, tribal masks, books, clothing, tattoo-making instruments (such as Thomas Edison's perforating pen) and even mummified samples of body parts and preserved tattooed human skin.

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Isabel Muñoz, Maras portrait, 2006 © Maras series, 2006

I was obviously drawn to the displays showing how tattoo was used by 'the underworld' to frighten, claim their belonging to a certain gang, parade their crimes or share secret codes.

Tattoos were of great interest to European criminologists during the late 19th century. Many scholars believed that the presence of tattooing in European culture represented worrying signs of atavism, criminal proclivity, or dangerous 'degeneration' within their populations (via.) French criminologist Alexandre Lacassagne, however, believed that the choice of tattoo offered an insight into the criminal mind. He catalogued thousands of images according to type and body location. In 1881 he published Tatouages: Étude Anthropologique Et Médico-légale, or Anthropological and Forensic Tattoos.

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Alexandre Lacassagne, catalogue of tattoos, 1920/1940

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Alexandre Lacassagne, catalogue of tattoos, 1920/1940. Photo: The Skyline

Lacassagne's archives offer an interesting parallel to the drawings and photos detailing Russian criminal tattoos.

Sergei Vasiliev worked both as a photographer for a newspaper in Chelyabinsk and as a prison warden when he encountered the work of Danzig Baldaev, the son of an ethnographer who was arrested as an "enemy of the people". Baldaev spent over 30 years working in the Soviet penal system. He recorded the horrors of the Gulag in dozens of drawings but he gained fame for his meticulous documentation of the tattoos etched on the skin of the inmates.

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Sergei Vasiliev, Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Print No.12, 2010

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Danzig Baldaev, Russian Criminal Tattoo

Nowadays, you don't have to be a criminal to wear tattoos. But the notorious Mara Salvatrucha gangs of Los Angeles and Central America wear their symbols and languages on their faces.

With the help of a priest working on the rehabilitation of gang members, Isabel Muñoz gained access to a prison in El Salvador where she made stunning portraits of the men.

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Isabel Muñoz, Maras portrait, 2006 © Maras series, 2006

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Tattoo machine made in prison using a pen and electric wire

More images from the show:

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Captain Costentenus tattooed by order of Yakoob-Beg, 19th century © Fonds Dutailly, Ville de Chaumont.

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Britain's first female tattoo artist, Jessie Knight, at work in 1955. ©Getty Images


British Pathé Woman Tattooist shows tattoo artist Jessie Knight at work in 1952

Other British Pathé about tattoos: a 1936 video showing how permanent makeup is tattooed on ladies' faces, and Bristol Tattoo Club (1954.)

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Circus Performer Djita Salomé, early XXth century

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Hans Neleman, Dio Hutana, 1997

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Herbert Hoffmann, Karl Oergel, 1956

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Denise Colomb, Tattoo, 1950

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Marc Garanger, Portrait of an Algerian woman, Algeria, 1960

Marc Garanger's 1960 portrait of a woman whose village was destroyed during Algeria's war of independence from France. She clearly wasn't impressed by the French photographer.

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Martin Hladik, Traditional Japanese tattoo © Photo: Tatttooinjapan.com / Martin Hladik

You probably don't want to see this video but here is the Lizardman, i discovered its existence in one of the videos screened at the museum:


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View of the exhibition space. Image AFP via Le Matin

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View of the exhibition space. Image AFP via Le Matin

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View of the exhibition space. Image AFP via Le Matin

Tattooists, tattooed is at the musée du Quai Branly until 18 october 2015. It was curated by Anne & Julien, founders of the magazine "Hey! Modern Art and Pop Culture," in collaboration with tattoo artist Tin-Tin, anthropologist Sébastien Galliot and journalist Pascal Bagot.

Related: Russian Criminal Tattoo portraits.

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