How the nuclear age has been charted through photography (Wired UK)


University of California, Interior of Heavy Ion Linear Accelerator, UC Berkeley, 1971. Courtesy University of California

Collection of John O’Brian


The parallel between developments in photography and nuclear
technology is not strikingly obvious. Yet for one man, who has
amassed a prolific archive of photographs charting the evolution of
the nuclear age, the connection is more apparent.

As a child of the nuclear era, art historian and
curator John O’Brian has seen it all. He remembers the US in the
aftermath of the twin atomic assaults on Japan, and recalls living
through the Cold War as diplomatic relations between the US and
Russia hung on tenterhooks, exposing the world to the possibility
of nuclear meltdown.

But what has not been explored according to the
clued-up professor, is the key role that photographic technology
played in the advancement of nuclear technologies. In a recent
interview with WIRED.co.uk, O’Brian remarked that it was
photography’s ability to capture different stages of the blast that
allowed scientists to freeze, look back on, learn from, and
reassess their nuclear techniques.

“Some photographs of nuclear testings were taken
literally in a millionth of a second or less — in a fraction of
the second after the bomb started to go off,” comments O’Brian.
“It’s something that the human eye couldn’t see.”

According to O’Brian, cameras used by scientists such as Harold
Edgerton
 were specially manufactured to capture the
different stages of the blast. “Scientists used these photographs
to measure the blast field and to improve it, and to understand how
the process worked,” he explained.

Photography may have
accelerated the development of one of the most controversial
technologies on Earth, yet O’Brian asserts that on the
flipside nuclear technology has
also played a role in advancing medical imaging techniques, which
have allowed doctors to detect where cancerous tumours lie in the
human body.

And it’s nuclear technology’s link with humankind for
the bad and good that Professor O’Brian and curator Marianne
Templeton wished to explore in their jointly-organised exhibition
entitled After the Flash: Photography from the Atomic
Archive.

Given the prominence of the nuclear debate in our
lives in the aftermath of 2011 Fukushima Daichi disaster, Germany’s
decision to turn its back on nuclear and recent proposals to
reinvest in the Hinkley power plant in the UK, the exhibit on show at the
Work Gallery is timely. The images provoke questions on humankind’s
relation with nuclear technology, and the exhibition
explores some of the complexities of the nuclear age in ways
that might never have crossed the viewer’s mind.

Coinciding with the publication of the
book Camera Atomica by O’Brian, the exhibition’s
main theme is how cameras have both “recorded” and “provided
motivation for the production of nuclear events”. Namely, the
exhibition asks how photography taken during the atomic era may
have affected a public image of the bomb and nuclear energies into
the present day.

Divided into three subsections entitled Cameras and
Clouds, At Work in the Fields of Bombs, and The Culture of
Contamination, the exhibition explores photography’s function as
social record, the political and economic forces linked to the uses
of nuclear technology, and curious pop culture appropriations of
nuclear imagery, where atomic symbols were used as landmarks in the
US, and sold on to consumers worldover in the form of tourist
paraphernalia.

Despite the deeply questionable representations of
humankind in the aftermath of the nuclear disaster and the
absorption of nuclear imagery into popular culture, O’Brian’s aim
is to focus on the human side of the atomic era. Pointing to the
infamous iconography of the “mushroom cloud”, which is associated
with the nuclear age, O’Brian noted that it had become a “logo” of
behind which the human side was concealed.

“You can’t learn anything from a mushroom cloud — you
don’t see the people who have been killed or the damage that has
been wrought,” he said. “This is the kind of imagery that has
become widespread in the media. The mushroom cloud has become a
logo of the atomic age.”

Asserting that he wanted to raise awareness of nuclear
technologies and their continuing presence in our lives through his
exhibition, O’Brian mentioned that while proponents of nuclear
energy will assert that the carbon imprint is reduced with nuclear
energy, they had failed to consider that on the flipside, there
could still be repeats of disasters such as Chernobyl and
Fukushima.

“There has still been no means of getting rid of toxic
nuclear wastes and we’re now reaching a point where sustainable
energies such as wind and solar are becoming more economic than
nuclear,” noted O’Brian.

From themes of scientific measurement to questionable
pop cultural appropriations and the real destruction wrought on
both the environment and human lives, After the Flash:
Photography from the Atomic Archive
 offers a visual
insight into debate which still touches both UK and international
communities.

After the Flash: Photography from the Atomic
Archive is on display at the Work Gallery until 20 December
2014

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21 November 2014 | 1:19 pm – Source: wired.co.uk

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