The Atomic Explosion

June 9 – September 2, 2011
at Peter Blum SoHo

Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Black and White

New York Times

The mushroom cloud is one of those images that’s hard to process without resorting to abstractions. In our minds this symbol of nuclear Armageddon has somehow become detached from the weapon’s deadly efficacy.

Art has sometimes attacked this disconnect: see Warhol’s “Atomic Bomb,” Takashi Murakami’s skull-faced plume and the ending montage of “Dr. Strangelove.” And photography has done the same, in the form of once-classified images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Two coinciding but unrelated shows, at the Peter Blum Gallery and the International Center of Photography, offer both a distant, pyrotechnic view of the bomb and a close-up, ground-level look at its devastating effects. For some, they will bring back memories of “duck and cover”; for all, they will stoke the anxieties generated by the recent Japanese nuclear crisis.

At the SoHo branch of Peter Blum, “The Atomic Explosion: A Collection of Vintage Photographs,” gathers 66 images of American nuclear tests and detonations, most of them conducted at the Nevada Test Site and on the Marshall Islands during the 1940s and ’50s.

The massing mushroom clouds in these images, photographed from miles away, are made to seem benignly organic. A giant portobello rises over Bikini Atoll; slender enokis sprout in Nevada.

Several shots show journalists and soldiers watching from a safe distance, sometimes through special glasses. The news-service captions on many of the prints feel just as innocuous; one compares a double-capped cloud to “a giant dumbbell.”

The show includes two images of the blast at Nagasaki three days after the first bomb was dropped over Hiroshima; if you didn’t read the caption, you would never know, in this context, that it wasn’t a test. The only allusions to the bomb’s effects here are a couple of photographs of craters.

That’s not the case at the photography center, where “Hiroshima: Ground Zero 1945” features contact prints and photographs made in connection with the 1947 United States Strategic Bombing Survey of Hiroshima and depicting the cataclysmic devastation on the ground. (The show is accompanied by a book of the same title, which reproduces additional images from the archive of more than 700. The complete set of 1,125 is in the National Archives.)

To the viewer the survey texts that accompany the images may appear shockingly clinical. The caption on an image of a library, or what remains of it, reads: “Interior first story showing contents damage and spalling of cement plaster by fire. Note all books reduced to ashes.”

Another part of the survey describes a boy’s charred and shredded jacket, shown draped over the back of a chair. The text notes that the garment “started to smolder from heat rays at 3,800 feet from AZ [Ground Zero],” but does not mention the fate of the wearer.

The photographs, which have been in the museum’s permanent collection since 2006, have been declassified for decades. They came to the center largely by happenstance; a Massachusetts diner owner and antiques collector named Don Levy found them inside a discarded suitcase.

Mr. Levy kept the photographs for years, until a customer with an interest in photography encouraged him to approach the dealer Andrew Roth. Mr. Roth exhibited some of them at his Upper East Side gallery in the 2003 show “After and Before: Documenting the A-Bomb,” which also featured vintage shots of nuclear tests like the ones at Blum.

Further investigation by Mr. Levy and the journalist Adam Harrison Levy (no relation), who was working on a film about Hiroshima for the BBC, revealed that the photographs had belonged to the architectural engineer and civil defense expert Robert L. Corsbie. Mr. Corsbie died in a house fire in 1967, but the photographs survived and fell into the hands of two men hired to clear out the basement of his daughter — one of whom discarded the suitcase found by Don Levy.

Mr. Corsbie and other engineers studied the survey photographs so that they could build better bomb shelters at home. We might peruse this archive for a different reason: to expand our mental picture of the bomb itself.

“Think of Hiroshima and what comes to mind is the mushroom cloud,” Adam Harrison Levy writes in his essay for the center’s book. “Awesome in its way, with its bulbous head and towering stem, it is nonetheless an abstract image freed from human agency and human consequence.”

“The Atomic Explosion” continues through July 29 at Peter Blum Gallery, 99 Wooster Street, SoHo , (212) 343-0441, peterblumgallery.com. “Hiroshima: Ground Zero 1945” continues through Aug. 28 at the International Center of Photography, 1133 Avenue of the Americas, at 43rd Street, (212) 857-0000, icp.org.