PICTURING THE BOMB
PHOTOGRAPHS FROM THE SECRET WORLD
OF THE MANHATTAN PROJECT
Pasadena City College Art Galllery
October 5-Novemeber 12, 2011
One of the strangest confluences in art history was the painter, Georgia O’Keeffe, and the father of the atomic bomb, Robert Oppenheimer. Both loved the southwest. He had discovered the rough and radiant lands of Los Alamos on his holidays, when he was riding on horseback through the desert terrain. She had found artistic and personal salvation in the arid landscapes around Taos, far away from New York. One day, the lives of the artist and the scientist fused together during a bright and savage moment of the brightest light on earth—the first explosion of the first atomic bomb in history. The day was July 16, 1945; the place was Alamogordo and the bomb was named “Trinity;” and the dawn was irradiated with an unearthly glow that hovered above the earth, yet shook and scorched melted it.
After that moment in time, after that strange event, nothing would be the same. The outsiders of the neighborhood, who saw the light and felt the rumbling and heard the shattering of windows, were bewildered eyewitnesses to the coming of a new age. As W.B. Yeats said in The Second Coming of 1919, “…Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world/The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned…” These photographs, from the collection of the granddaughter of Enrico Fermi, Rachel Fermi, a faculty member of Pasadena City College, are routine documentary, slice of life images of the banality of the unimaginable (the un-image-able), showing that the majority of the people connected with the Manhattan Project had little or no idea of what they were participating in.
Los Alamos in the 1940s
Working with her partner, the photohistorian, Esther Samra, Fermi published a book on Picturing the Bomb in 1995, so this project is not a new one. The exhibition probably came about because of Fermi’s position on the faculty, but, sadly, the installation does not do justice to the gravity of the topic. Painted a sickly institutional pink, the gallery walls provide an unappetizing backdrop for prints of the original photographs of the building of the bomb at Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Los Alamos, New Mexico. Although the prints provide some information for the viewer, they are literally thumbtacked to the wall. One can charitably assume that such causal amateurism is an attempt to mirror the studied normalcy of the building of the bomb.
Total secrecy was combined with at attempt to create a normal life for the scientists, their families, the workers and the children who lived in forced isolation in faux towns of Oak Ridge and Los Alamos. Children play “ring around the rosie” outside an Oak Ridge Schoolhouse and scientists play with their children during their family time. Language was deployed, perhaps subconsciously, to domesticate the horrible death machine by calling it “the gadget.” And the “gadget” was treated with the same mundanity.
For example, the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were named “Fat Man” and “Little Boy.” For example, the Trinity bomb was assembled in the room of a farmhouse named McDonald’s. For example, someone casually recorded Herb Lehr, a member of the “Special Engineering Detachment,” whatever that meant, carrying the assembled bomb core in a case that resembled a six-pack for beer cans. Dressed in a white tee shirt and a pair of baggy highwaisted chinos, Herb looked unperturbed as he went about his mission. In contrast the photograph of Trinity, a day before “the gadget” was to detonate, is a large, leering and menacing orb entangled in thick vein-like wiring, looking like a creature from another world.
But the inhabitants of these atomic villages knew of the seminal nature of their project. Even if the workers were somewhat in the dark, all know that that level of secrecy would not be imposed unless something important to going on. And yet there was a fair amount of documentation going on, both official and governmental and private and perhaps clandestinely. Fermi and Samra worked for quite some time to put together a collection of family photographs from the collection of Enrico Fermi and the archived and declassified images of the Manhattan project.
With decades of history to look back on, these images resonate with meaning. Because we know what happened next—the annihilation of two cities, decades of Cold War, and the stockpiling of a nuclear arsenal that haunts us to this day. When my colleague and I visited the gallery, there were a few interested visitors as intrigued as we were over the combination of what we were seeing—eye witness accounts of the dawn of the atomic age—and what we knew about the ongoing debate over whether or not the Bomb should have been dropped or not. But the exhibition was not about now; the show was about then and the traces of a time suspended: the time of doing a task while doing the job of trying not to think of the consequences to other human beings.
The time of reckoning was to come, as Robert Oppenheimer foresaw when he famous quoted the Bhagavad-Gita: “…now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds…” But the installation does not take us beyond that moment and allows the audience to come to its own conclusions. For years the official histories of the United States skirted around the story of the “Bomb,” as it was called, by stressing the inevitability of the decision and the righteousness of the outcome, without discussing the actual effects of the explosion and radiation itself. As though there were a governmental conscience in deep denial, the United States allowed civilian populations and military personnel to be exposed to nuclear radiation from Nevada to Bikini.
In the same way, there is a gap in the art historical version of the life of Georgia O’Keeffe. The official histories of Ghost Ranch celebrate the presence of O’Keeffe but one has to dig to find out that this rough and rugged dude ranch was the approved site for the atomic scientists who needed relief from the isolation of Los Alamos. They arrived at Ghost Ranch for the weekends and stayed under assumed names. Their average and unassuming American names were at odds with the strong foreign accents, but the guests at the Ranch, like O’Keeffe, came in search of privacy and peace and respected each other’s right to small talk. O’Keeffe was famous for her imperious ways and would have been a far less congenial guest than the scientists who were, by all accounts, very sociable.
After years of living on the Ghost Ranch property she owned, Racho de los Burros, O’Keeffe purchased and restored an old house in Abiquiu in 1945 and spent three years making it a place she could live in. But she found building supplies hard to come by because of the construction of the military base at Los Alamos. There is an interesting parallel between an artist who was building a place where she could find solitude and scientists who were building a temporary site from which to launch destruction. Surely she was shaken awake the morning of July 16 by what felt like an earthquake, by the false dawn of the explosion, and the rushing winds that sent scouring sand exploding against the walls of buildings.
O’Keeffe. Pelvis Series, Red and Yellow (1945)
In contrast to the well-documented accounts of life at Los Alamos, little has been said of O’Keeffe and her art and the atomic bomb. One would think that she might have written to her husband about the strange event, witnessed and experienced by thousands of residents of the region. But no one seems to have put together the painting, Pelvis Series, Red and Yellow, painted in 1945—a view of a sky engulfed in a bright yellow ball of light—and the Trinity explosion. But then, for years after the event, the government did not permit photographs of this event to circulate. But when one compares the photograph of the explosion in the archives of Life Magazine and O’Keeffe’s painting, the resemblance is astonishing.
Even though the exhibition is based upon a project—-the Manhattan—-that is now sixty years old and a book—Picturing the Bomb—that was published over twenty years ago, the show was a timely one. As American recedes from two wars and rushes to intervene in other nations, none belonging neither to the twentieth nor the twenty-first century, we have yet to come to terms with the self-inflicted wound that is the cost of unconditional surrender and victory at any costs. Those who made the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Japan are long dead and have faced any Reckoning that was due to them; those who were determined to enter into a foreign policy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) are contemplating the fruits of their actions in their waning years. We try to ask ourselves the question, after the Kami-Kazi attacks, after Iwo Jima, after Okinawa, what would we have done? Dropped the Bomb? Or not? And then what?
If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.