Atomic Sublime: How Photography Shapes our View of Nuclear Warfare and Energy

The 70th anniversary of the dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will undoubtedly be accompanied by images of the “mushroom clouds” that rose over both cities. Terrible and sublime, these images burned themselves into the consciousness of “the greatest generation” and every generation since that’s lived with both the legacy of nuclear war and the reality of nuclear energy. A new exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario titled Camera Atomica looks deeply at the interrelated nature of photography and nuclear war and peace to come away with a fascinating glimpse of the calculatedly manufactured “atomic sublime” — the fascination with such terrible power at our command that simply won’t let us look away.

Atomic Sublime: How Photography Shapes our View of Nuclear Warfare and Energy

The 70th anniversary of the dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will undoubtedly be accompanied by images of the “mushroom clouds” that rose over both cities. Terrible and sublime, these images burned themselves into the consciousness of “the greatest generation” and every generation since that’s lived with both the legacy of nuclear war and the reality of nuclear energy. A new exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario, titled Camera Atomica, looks deeply at the interrelated nature of photography and nuclear war and peace to come away with a fascinating glimpse of the calculatedly manufactured “atomic sublime” — the fascination with such terrible power at our command that simply won’t let us look away.


Guest curator and editor of the exhibition catalog, John O'Brian claims, “In subtle, but provocative ways this exhibition addresses some of the most controversial issues of the post-war era including nuclear proliferation, toxic waste disposal, and climate change. Beyond demonstrating the reach of atomic energy, this exhibition speaks to the power of photography—how it has influenced our perspectives over generations and helped shape a legacy of social anxiety.” It’s hard to imagine anything about nuclear war being subtle, but Camera Atomica manages to dissect the manipulative marketing of nuclear weapons and reactors over the decades to make them more acceptable to the public. Knowing what we know now about the dangers of exposure to radiation, it’s almost inconceivable that people once witnessed atomic test explosions like some kind of theatrical spectacle (as in the image above, from 1951), but, as Camera Atomica proves, we’ve still been a captive audience without even knowing it.

As O’Brian points out in his catalog introduction, “Through a Radioactive Lens,” “Wherever nuclear events occur, photographers are present. They are there not only to record what happens, but also to assist in the production of what happens. From the outset, photographic images have been instrumental in shaping nuclear research and how it is used.” From Hiroshima to Chernobyl to Fukushima, “Few aspects of the nuclear environment have escaped the camera’s gaze,” O’Brian explains. If photographs comprise our “public memory” of such events, “to what degree has photography contributed to an understanding of the reciprocal relationship in nuclear energy between harm and benefit? How should the different visual regimes of nuclear photography — scientific, surveillant, journalistic, documentary, fine art, propagandistic, touristic — be comprehended? What can photography tell us, or not tell us, about pressing social issues such as nuclear weapons proliferation, geo-political relations, climate change, and radioactive waste disposal?” O’Brian and Camera Atomica raise many important, troubling questions about nuclear energy that require both words and pictures to answer.

The Art Gallery of Ontario exhibition splits Camera Atomica into three parts: “Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” “Test and Protest,” and “Uranium and Radiation.” The first section opens with Berlyn Brixner’s photos of America’s Trinity test in the New Mexico desert in July 1945, the first nuclear detonation ever and trial run for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In addition to the aforementioned iconic “mushroom cloud” images from August 1945, this first section includes lesser known survivor portraits by Shōmei Tōmatsu. From the very beginning, Camera Atomica demonstrates how official photography tried to keep the narrative up in the clouds, the realm of the “atomic sublime,” rather than down on the ground, where the reality of the human costs presented more terrible than sublime pictures. Tōmatsu’s picture of a wristwatch frozen at the moment of the Nagasaki detonation at 11:02 am on August 9, 1945 reminds us not only of how time stopped for the wearer, but also of how modernity changed irreversibly after humanity opened the Pandora’s box of nuclear war.

“Test and Protest” traces nuclear proliferation from those first tests in the desert to the Reagan Administration’s ramping up of nuclear weaponry as the Cold War between the United States and Russia heated up in the early 1980s. Bruce Conner’s BOMBHEAD visualizes the mentality of this period that learned “to stop worrying and love the bomb,” or at least the idea of the bomb that photography had conditioned them to love. The exhibition presents many examples of this nuclear marketing, perhaps most notably Operation Crossroads: The Official Pictorial Record, a visual scrapbook of Operation Crossroads, the first post-Hiroshima and Nagasaki U.S. atomic bomb testing at Bikini Atoll in 1946. That “pictorial record” included everything from a gold-embossed image of the test’s mushroom cloud on the cover to a photograph of Vice Admiral William H.P. “Spike” Blandy and his wife cutting a mushroom-cloud-shaped cake to celebrate the completion of the tests. Artist Barbara Kruger recycled an Operation Crossroads mushroom cloud photograph in 1981 and added the words “Your Manias Become Science.” Kruger’s “message was directed at those nations in possession of nuclear weapons, members of the so-called Nuclear Club,” O’Brian writes in the catalog. “Kruger’s appropriation of an iconic Bikini image, and her reanimation of it with an aggressive political slogan, is presented without irony.” In the face of the light-hearted normalization of nuclear warfare by imagery and marketing text (“Even this cloud has a silver lining” being perhaps the most egregious example), Kruger is deadly serious about the “manias” of the maniacs she sees wielding the nuclear controls.

The last section of the exhibition struggles to balance the benefits (as energy source, medical tool, etc.) with the hazards (to human life and the environment) of nuclear energy. Edward Burtynsky’s Uranium Tailings #12, Elliot Lake, Ontario shows the environmental cost of uranium extraction as something both oddly beautiful and troubling in its devastation. Added to Emmet Gowin’s photos of the Nevada nuclear test site and Montana mining regions that seem more like alien landscapes than Earth ones and David McMillan’s eerie Chernobyl landscapes, the cumulative effect is an artistic protest against the visual manipulation of official channels pushing the atomic sublime. These new images are still striking and sublime in their own way, but forward a new narrative that rejects the “silver lining” of the mushroom clouds of the past. 

In her catalog essay “Radical Contact Prints,” Susan Schuppli takes the idea of reversing the narrative even further. Just as we’ve been taking photographs of nuclear events since the beginning, those nuclear events have been “taking photographs” of us in return. Just as contact prints use photosensitive paper to turn exposed surfaces into images using sunlight (the most artistic version being Man Ray’s “rayographs”), radiation leaves a trace, however subtle, of whatever it strikes on the next nearest surface. “When two atomic bombs were detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, their searing heat rays transformed the material surfaces of these cities quite literally into photographic contact prints as ghostly photograms of damaged bodies and buildings were etched into concrete and stone,” Schuppli writes. “Exposed by the radical intensity of the blast, and without the mediation of a filmic negative, these ‘atomic shadows’ document life at the very moment of death. They too are a kind of radio-autograph — a spontaneous recording of an external event to which it can actively bear material witness.” If only we had been looking at those “atomic shadows” of the ground-level destruction rather than at the mushroom clouds rising above, perhaps the story of 20th and 21st century nuclear energy and weaponry would be much different.

The exhibition Camera Atomica cleverly concludes with a discussion room designed to mimic a fallout shelter, so that visitors can muse on the fallout of the last seven decades of humanity’s use of nuclear power for good and ill. Camera Atomica and its exhibition catalog raise important questions about nuclear energy and the selling of nuclear proliferation worldwide. In her catalog essay, Schuppli quotes Ukrainian filmmaker Vladimir Shevchenko’s reaction to finding his film had been damaged by the radiation emanating from the recent Chernobyl disaster: “Radiation is a fatal invisible foe. One that even penetrates steel plating. It has no odor, nor color. But it has a voice. Here it is.” The same can be said of Camera Atomica in its ability to make nuclear energy “speak” with its powerful, terrible, sometimes sublime voice to bear witness that perhaps humanity had outstepped its bounds, or as J. Robert Oppenheimer quoted from the Bhagavad Gita at that first Trinity test, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Camera Atomica calls us to become Life, maker of a new world with a clearer picture of nuclear energy.

[Image: Unknown U.S. Air Force, Atomic Explosion, 1951. Gelatin Silver Print. 20.32 x 25.4 cm. The Black Star Collection, courtesy of the Ryerson Image Centre.]

[Many thanks to the Art Gallery of Ontario for providing me with the image above and other press materials related to the exhibition Camera Atomica, which runs through November 15, 2015, and for a review copy of the catalog to the exhibition, Camera Atomica, with essays by John O'Brian, Hiromitsu Toyosaki, Julia Bryan-Wilson, Blake Fitzpatrick, Susan Schuppli, Iain Boal, Gene Ray, and Douglas Coupland.]

[Please follow me on Twitter (@BobDPictureThis) and Facebook (Art Blog By Bob) for more art news and views.]

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In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

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