The Atomic Explosion

June 9 – September 2, 2011
at Peter Blum SoHo

The Atomic Explosion

City Arts

The Atomic Explosion

By Nicholas Wells

Is there any greater visual icon of the mid-twentieth century than the mushroom cloud? The atomic bomb’s destructive force and the following radiation and disease render its sight unmistakable. The Atomic Explosion collects a series of 66 vintage photographs taken in the 1940s and ’50s depicting nuclear tests performed by the United States at Bikini Atoll and at the Nevada Test Site. The U.S.’s bombing of Nagasaki, too, is represented in a handful of photographs.

You know the images; you’ve seen them before. A billowing, manmade cloud rising high above the Nevada desert or a tropical island with the helmeted heads of young men on assignment in the South Pacific reminding us that there really isn’t anything like a day at the beach. The photographs are strangely beautiful and at times betray their underlying narrative. Shot by military personnel or scientists from the Manhattan Project, the pictures are uncredited and occasionally accompanied by clinical descriptions of the test’s immediate results. 

If the advent of Modernism (in a non-literary sense) was heralded by the industrial killing mechanisms of Flanders Fields, then the noise-canceling boom of the A-bomb was surely the wake-up call from utopian movements. It was, after all, the necessity of the bomb which catapulted us into the first technological race for global dominance (nee security), soon to be followed by the space race and nuclear arsenal buildups of the ’50s and ’60s.

So was the explosion—heard “200 miles away from ground zero”—anything but the death knell of Modernism? And that flash of light that seemed to illuminate the entire world in its single second of existence, while answering no questions about the nature of man and his relationship to the world, succeeded in rearranging the questions, scrambling them together and casting on them all a blinding new outlook.

Through July 29, Peter Blum Soho, 99 Wooster St., www.peterblumgallery.com.