After The Flash. Photography from the Atomic Archive


Margaret Bourke-White, Crewmen of B-36 Bomber Posing in Artic Equipment

The WORK Gallery in London has recently opened a fascinating exhibition that looks at the role that photography has played in constructing the public image of atomic energy and ‘the bomb’. I was expecting a dark and dramatic show but many of the images on the walls are alarmingly cheerful and wonderful.

The first group of works exhibited are the iconic images of the mushroom cloud. What i didn’t suspect is that some of these explosions were accompanied by ‘atomic tourism‘ (which has in no way disappeared, even though we might take contamination less recklessly these days.) Atmospheric nuclear testing in Nevada, for example, drew enthusiastic crowd of journalists and curious. They sat down wearing ‘protective’ eyewear and admired the explosions from vantage points which were sometimes perilously close to the blasts.


Viewers and members of the press at “News Nob”, Yucca Flats, NV, April 22, 1952. Marcel Verdooner/U.S. Army Photograph


Detonation of the nuclear device air-dropped at Nevada Test Site on March 29, 1955. Operation Teapot – Wasp Prime

Those were times of faith in science and in particular in nuclear energy. As illustrated by Walt Disney/s 1957 tv episode Our Friend the Atom, the crowning of miss Atomic Bomb, families proudly posing into their fallout shelter, the futuristic architecture of nuclear power structures, as well as streets and venues that celebrate everything nuclear in Richland, a town located near the first full-scale plutonium production reactor.


Michael Crawford, Atomic Lanes, n.d. Collection of John O’Brian


Michael Crawford, Nuclear Lane, 2000. Collection of John O’Brian

The exhibition also shows the other side of the nuclear medal: scars on the bodies of civilians injured in Hiroshima, an elementary school built on grounds contaminated by nuclear waste, artistic works that use views of New York to visualize the scale of an atomic destruction, protests that bring to light overlooked issues of safety and security.

Most of the photos on display at WORK gallery come from the archive of art historian and curator John O’Brian. The show also accompanies the publication of his latest book: Camera Atomica.

I’d recommend checking them both. The exhibition and the book. The show is up until 20 December, it’s not far away from King’s Cross station, i think it would be rude to miss it if you’re in town. The book is a gold mine of photos, historical facts, shocking anecdotes. It’s also a demonstration of the strength of the image when it comes to shaping memories and imagination. I’ve mixed images seen in the gallery and photos found in the book in this quick post.


Camera Atomica: Photographing the Nuclear World, edited by writer and curator John O’Brian. Contributions by Hiromitsu Toyosaki, Julia Bryan-Wilson, Blake Fitzpatrick, Susan Schuppli, Iain Boal, Gene Ray, Douglas Coupland (available at Blackdog Publishing and on Amazon USA and UK)

And now for the many photos i promised you:


Photographer Unknown, Operation Redwing Super H Bomb – Tom and the Big Boy and Baby Bomb, 1956


Photographer Unkown, Cave Bomb Shelter, June 1972


Photographer Unknown, Anti-Nuclear Bomb War Protest Sign, July 1967. Collection of John O’Brian


The United States-Japan Security Treaty Protest, Tokyo, June 15, 1960, Hiroshi Hamaya, gelatin silver print. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2012.29.2. © Keisuke Katano


Michael Light, 100 SUNS: 008 STOKES/19 Kilotons/ Nevada/1957, 2003


Press Agency Photo. Vice Admiral W.H.P (“Spike”) Blandy and his Wife Cutting an Atomic Cake, 1946


Paul Shambroom, B83 1-megaton nuclear gravity bombs in Weapons Storage Area, Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, 1995


Emergency Life Pack for Nuclear Fallout, New York, 1961 — Max Scheler


Interior of heavy ion linear accelerator, University of California Berkeley, 1971. Photograph: Work Gallery/Black Dog Publishing


Curt Gunther, Hydrogen Bomb Explosion, Yucca Flats, Nevada, 12 October 1967. Collection of John O’Brian


Atomic Postcard. Explosion at Yucca Flat, n.d. Collection of John O’Brian


Atomic Postcard, Britain, n.d. Collection of John O’Brian


Photographer Unknown, Face 1945-1950


John Carlton, New York Nightmare: Air-burst Atomic Bombs Make Cities in the Northeast Obsolete…, 1949


Checking radioactive tuna, Tokyo, 1954 (via)


Construction of The Atomium, Brussels, 1957-1958 (via)

Check out After The Flash. Photography from the Atomic Archive at the WORK Gallery in London, until 20 December 2014.

Related posts: Anecdotal radiations, the stories surrounding nuclear armament and testing programs, La Cosa Radiactiva / The Radioactive Thing, Book review – Fallout Shelter. Designing for Civil Defense in the Cold War,
Yasusuke Ota: The Abandoned Animals of Fukushima, Harold Edgerton, “the man who made time stand still”, Shomei Tomatsu, etc.

Photo on the homepage: Michael Light, 100 Suns: 099 Bravo, 2003.