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Cultural Memory and Nuclear Power

This photograph depicts a mushroom cloud from a hydrogen bomb explosion rising over other clouds and an ocean below.
American
Untitled
1952
chromogenic print | paper
Gift of The Morris and Beverly Baker Foundation, in memory of Morris D. Baker, a graduate of The University of Michigan School of Architecture, 1952
2000/2.129
This photograph depicts a desert landscape with a craggy rock formation rising in the far distance in the central portion of the horizon. A dirt road extends through the foreground. The top half of the image depicts a vast, cloudless sky in tones of blue and pink.
Richard Misrach
Shiprock Triptych #1
1987
cibachrome print | paper
Gift of Jack A. and Noreen Rounick
2004/2.59.1
This photograph depicts a desert landscape with a craggy rock formation rising in the far distance in the central portion of the horizon. A dirt road extends through the foreground. The top half of the image depicts a vast, cloudless sky in tones of blue and pink.
Richard Misrach
Shiprock Triptych #2
1987
cibachrome print | paper
Gift of Jack A. and Noreen Rounick
2004/2.59.2
This photograph depicts a desert landscape with a craggy rock formation rising in the far distance in the central portion of the horizon. A dirt road extends through the foreground. The top half of the image depicts a vast, cloudless sky in tones of blue and gray.
Richard Misrach
Shiprock Triptych #3
1987
cibachrome print | paper
Gift of Jack A. and Noreen Rounick
2004/2.59.3
This photograph depicts a view of a desert landscape with a fish hanging from the top of a thin pole in the foreground.  Behind the fish is a small cemetery that has mounds and crosses and in the distance are a few small buildings. Two more poles with fish hanging from them appear farther away in the image to the right of the fish in the foreground.
Patrick Nagatani
Japanese Children's Day Carp Banners, Paguate Village, Jackpile Mine Uranium Tailings, Laguna Pueblo Reservation, New Mexico
1990
dye destruction print | paper
Gift of Beverly Baker in memory of Morris D. Baker
2004/1.106

On August 6, 1945, the United States became the only nation to use nuclear weapons against a human target. Conversely, on the same day, Japan became the only nation to be the target of a nuclear attack. Since then, nuclear power--whether in the form of bombs and missiles or as a source of energy--has played a deeply controversial role in modern world history. Post-World War II narratives of American military ascendancy become problematic in view of accounts of generations of Japanese citizens whose lives were brought to an end or irrevocably harmed by the 1945 bombings, while the promises of nuclear energy are tempered by the terrifying examples of Chernobyl and Fukushima. 

In a 1952 aerial image by an unknown photographer, a large, bright-white plume of smoke and vapor dominates the vast and vibrant blue sky and dwarfs the surrounding natural clouds. From a high vantage point, the photographer represents the grand visual effect of the characteristic mushroom-shaped cloud formed after the first hydrogen-bomb test, named “Ivy Mike.” Photographed seconds after the initial explosion, the viewer is witness to the impressive scope of the bomb’s destructive force. This image, along with  film footage created at the time (much of which has been recently declassified; see YouTube link above), was promoted by the U.S. government as proof of a thrilling advancement to the country’s nuclear capabilities during the early years of the Cold War (1947–91)—a period of escalating global tensions. While the scene represents the sublime power of manmade technology, the physical destruction wrought on the landscape beneath the bomb and the potential for human annihilation remain unseen in this explosive image.

Later photographers Richard Misrach and Patrick Nagatani engage with the United States' troubling history with nuclear power as they present the vast and sprawling desert landscape of New Mexico as a site of destructive uranium mining in the American southwest. Misrach’s triptych represents Shiprock—a striking geological formation and Navajo sacred site—three times over the course of a single day. The repetition of the scene emphasizes the passage of time, from the relatively recent destruction of the land and its effects on the native Navajo peoples to the perceived timelessness of this geographical site. Photographed only a few years later, Nagatani’s image similarly frames a desert scene yet includes a more direct reference to the demise of indigenous peoples: a cemetery at the Laguna Pueblo Reservation. Nagatani—whose parents were held in internment camps in the United States during World War II—pointedly overlays an image of celebratory carp streamers by Japanese artist Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858). The final montaged image addresses both the discriminatory experiences of Japanese Americans in the United States and the dangerous e ects of global nuclear development.

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& Author Notes

Creative Commons by-nc-sa (Jennifer Friess, Assistant Curator of Photography, UMMA & Sean Kramer, Curatorial Intern, UMMA)

Last Updated

May 3, 2019 2:00 p.m.

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