The Atomic Explosion

June 9 – September 2, 2011
at Peter Blum SoHo

Best in Show: 'The Atomic Explosion' at Peter Blum

The Village Voice

Over 30 years after the last aboveground test of an atomic bomb, the mushroom cloud—that ultimate symbol of apocalypse—doesn't look so fearsome in this fascinating collection of photographs, all taken in the two decades following World War II to document nuclear explosions. Isolated on the gallery's walls, removed from their original context, these images (mostly black and white) often carry a disquieting spiritual beauty. The irony hangs in the air like fallout, but those giant plumes, gracefully rising far above the earth's surface, suggest ascensions to heaven. A glowing orange fireball and its white halo of vapor—captured during a 1954 test on Bikini Atoll—appears as nothing less than a vision of God. Elsewhere, from 1951, guinea-pig soldiers of the 11th Airborne Division kneel like acolytes before a towering column of dust and debris, which looms astonishingly close to their position.

Slug (Atom Cloud), Operation Tumbler-Snapper, Event Charlie, 22 April 1952
Courtesy Peter Blum Gallery, New York
Slug (Atom Cloud), Operation Tumbler-Snapper, Event Charlie, 22 April 1952

The immense physical presence of the blasts can be weirdly sculptural. In a 1946 South Pacific test, the monstrous mushroom has such startling symmetry and solidity that it seems to be some permanent structure assembled out of concrete. Nearby, a taller, treelike shape may be less visually impressive, but the caption makes the shot the exhibit's most conceptually haunting—beneath the billowing smoke sits Nagasaki, at the moment when 40,000 residents were vaporized.


By Robert Shuster