Growing up absurd came easily in North America in the 1950s and '60s when nuclear war would shift back and forth from being plausible threat to imminent occurrence, from sinister diplomatic bargaining chip to, of course, "the end of civilization as we know it."
In suburban Regina, when our neighbours across our backyard built a bomb shelter complete with goops of cement covering their basement windows, bunk beds, shelves of canned food, a rifle and, puzzlingly, a big stack of Playboy magazines, I didn't know whether to be envious, scared or sarcastic ("You folks are a real nuclear family now!"). Having seen photographs of what the first atomic bombs had done to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945, I thought the shelter looked kind of, well … flimsy, pathetic, misguided even. Yes, Regina was the capital of Saskatchewan and home to the fearsome Roughriders – but with a population of just 110,000, how big a target could it really be in the Russkies' quest for world Commie domination?
These thoughts and much else were evoked earlier this week by a visit to Camera Atomica, the cleverly titled and excellent survey of atomic-age imagery and artifacts, roughly 200 in total, now on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto through mid-November. Curated by distinguished University of British Columbia professor and cultural historian John O'Brian in association with Sophie Hackett, the AGO's associate curator of photography, the exhibition presents work – artistic, scientific, journalistic, documentary, quirky, satiric – from pretty much the entire post-Second World War period up to the present day.
"Interesting" is sometimes a weaselly adjective used to damn with faint praise, but Camera Atomica is genuinely interesting in the dictionary sense of "arousing a state of curiosity or concern about or attention to something." If there's a particular feeling you're left with at exhibition's end, it's likely unease. On one hand, it's hardly a clarion call to the anti-nuke barricades; on the other, it's no apologia for the nuclear-industrial complex, no plea to cozy up to "our friend, the atom." For Ontarians especially, seeing it is akin to a civic duty since, as Camera Atomica points out, Ontario is one of the biggest nuclear "jurisdictions" on the planet and far and away Canada's most nuclear province. More than 55 per cent of the province's electrical power, in fact, comes from utilities such as Lake Huron's Bruce Power, the world's largest nuclear generating facility. It was uranium ore, transported to Port Hope, 110 kilometres east of Toronto, for refining from the Northwest Territories, that was used to develop the "Little Boy" bomb dropped on Hiroshima at the end of the Second World War.
For O'Brian, the overarching ethos of the exhibition is what he calls "the fatal interdependence between the camera and nuclear fission … nuclear events," a relationship "that was there from the beginning." One of the most arresting images in the exhibition, lent by Munich's Deutsches Museum, is the oldest: the very first X-ray, taken by German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen of his wife's hand in 1895. (Looking at the spectral image, Mrs. Roentgen reportedly said: "I have seen my own death.") Also in Camera Atomica: a copy of the Oct. 7, 1945, issue of the New York Sunday Mirror featuring on its cover the first-ever published colour photograph; shot by Jack Aeby, it's of the secret atomic detonation that occurred in New Mexico July 16, 1945, the one prompting physicist Robert Oppenheimer's famous utterance: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." A related bit of ephemera displayed is the leaflet the Americans dropped on close to a dozen Japanese cities several days before the Hiroshima attack, warning that the U.S. had "the most destructive explosive ever devised by man" which it would "resolutely employ" should military resistance continue. On the leaflet's front: a photo of five Superfortress aircraft dropping bombs.
Unsurprisingly, there are images aplenty of mushroom clouds – what O'Brian calls "the meta-symbol" of the onset of the nuclear era, "the logo of logos," the flash of the explosion being, of course, the ultimate flash-bulb. Sometimes the cloud is played, as it were, for bleak laughs, as in artist Bruce Conner's Bombhead, a send-up of sorts – or should that be blow-up? – of Magritte's 1964 painting Son of Man. The Bob Light/John Houston poster from 1983 for Gone with the Wind – "the film to end all films" – stars Ronald Reagan as Rhett Butler and Maggie Thatcher as Scarlett, with an incinerated Atlanta in the background. Sometimes the laughs are unintentional, the most risible example being a 1946 press agency photo of U.S. Vice-Admiral Spike Blandy and wife cutting a large angel-food cake shaped like a mushroom plume to mark the completion of Operation Crossroads, the first detonation of atomic devices post-Nagasaki. The explosions that are Mrs. Blandy's hat and corsage are a perfect complement to those on the cake.
Sometimes, too, there's an eerie beauty. A series of photographs by Harold Edgerton, MIT engineer and inventor of the electronic flash, capturing the first milli-seconds of a 1950s atomic-test blast, calls to mind the floating membranous eyeballs and heads in Odilon Redon paintings. Ishiuchi Miyako's large 2007 chromogenic print of what seems to be a shredded indigo dress worn by a woman in Hiroshima simultaneously sears the mind and ravishes the eye, like one of Irving Penn's luscious platinum palladium photos of crushed cigarette boxes from the 1970s.
Exotic is a descriptor that's out of fashion in the contemporary art world, but how else to describe the chandelier hanging from the ceiling in the exhibition's first space? This curiosity, created by Japanese-Australian artists Ken and Julia Yonetani in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, is one of 31 antique chandelier frames refitted with uranium glass beads and UV bulbs for a 2012 installation called Crystal Palace: The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nuclear Nations. Thirty-one is the number of countries with acknowledged nuclear programs and each chandelier is sized to represent the number of operating nuclear facilities in each country. Fittingly, it's the Canadian chandelier displayed at the AGO, its beads radiating an acid-green glow at once lovely and faintly sinister in the semi-dark. Visitors are going to be drawn to it like … well, like moths to a flame.
Camera Atomica is at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto through Nov. 15.