A Photographic Journey Through the Atomic Age


David McMillan View of Forest from Dental Hospital, Pripyat (2012), chromogenic print. © David McMillan

From the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, to the ghost city of Chernobyl, to the radioactive smoke of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi disaster, photographers have long been capturing the moments that have shaped our perception and understanding of the nuclear age.

The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) exhibition, Camera Atomica, features more than 200 photographs from the dawn of the nuclear age to the present day. “The mushroom cloud is the icon of icons from 1945 onwards,” says John O’Brian, curator of the exhibition, and professor of Art History at the University of British Columbia. “It is the logo of the atomic age, and what we know of that spectacle is almost entirely from photographs.”

Federal Newsphoto, Lieutenant-Colonel W. Arthur Croteau with a model of an atom blast on a map of Ottawa (April 26 1952), gelatin silver print, 21 x 16.2 cm. York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC08139

In addition to photographic images, the exhibition features ephemera ranging from advertisements and press clippings to information on how to survive a nuclear winter. It brings together vintage photographs of nuclear testing and iconic Cold War images with contemporary reportage, as well as art photography exploring issues unique to the atomic age. 

Artist Sandy Skoglund’s Radioactive Cats (1980), for example, features a pack of acid-green felines that seem to have overrun an elderly couple’s drab kitchen. Robert Del Tredici’s The Becquerel Reindeer, Harads Same-produktor, Harads, Lapland, Sweden (1986) — one of eight works on loan from the National Gallery of Canada — is similarly unsettling. “In this image of piles of slaughtered, contaminated reindeer,” says Ann Thomas, NGC Curator of Photographs, “as in his other photographs of nuclear fallout, Robert Del Tredici supplies the imagination with a powerful and tangible view of an otherwise invisible destructive force.”


Robert Del Tredici, The Becquerel Reindeer, Harads Same-produktor, Harads, Lapland, Sweden (December 3, 1986), gelatin silver print, 30.5 x 45.1 cm. National Gallery of Canada. © Robert Del Tredici/ CARCC 2015

In addition to exploring the harmful effects of nuclear science, such as the disposal of nuclear waste, meltdown and climate change, the exhibition also looks at its benefits. “On the beneficial side,” says O’Brian, “there is, say, medicine, which has played an important role in society. On the negative side, it’s the harmful effects of radioactive waste.” Edward Burtynsky, for instance, is represented in the exhibition with a photograph showing uranium tailings at Elliot Lake, Ontario — which, notes O’Brian, “are six times more radioactive than uranium itself. But the exhibition also includes a variety of photographs of things that have to do with medicine.”  

Nor is the exhibition without moments both humorous and chilling. Atomic Explosion (1951) is a case in point. In this U.S. Air Force press photograph, rows of military personnel lounge in casual clothing and goggles on the roof of an officers’ club, watching nuclear tests over the desert. “It’s a brilliant photograph,” says O’Brian, “because it doesn’t show you the mushroom cloud. It just shows the men, gathering to watch the bombs go off from a safe distance.”

Unknown U.S. Airforce, Atomic Explosion (1951), gelatin silver print, 20.32 x 25.4 cm. The Black Star Collection, courtesy of the Ryerson Image Centre

In a similar vein, a photograph taken during Operation Crossroads in 1946 celebrates the successful testing of two nuclear bombs near Bikini Atoll. The tests were undertaken to determine how nuclear weapons would affect warships, and, says O’Brian, “have yielded some of the most iconic photographs of nuclear explosions.” Following the test, a cake was baked in the form of a mushroom cloud and, in the photograph, the commanding officer stands next to his wife, who is cutting the cake while wearing a hat that looks like a mushroom cloud.

“I would argue that one must have a whole variety of photographs to provide a more complex account of what was going on,” says O’Brian. “This show takes a unique and substantial view of the atomic age, dealing with it in thematic ways by making arguments about the relationship of photography and nuclear events over a span of nearly 70 years.”

Camera Atomica is on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario until November 15, 2015. 

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