Camera Atomica: A Case Study in Nuclear Photography

Tuesday 11 March at 18:30 in EV 1.615
Concordia Unversity

John O'Brian
University of British Colombia

Although I am wary of nuclear photographs, unsure of their excesses and logic, I am convinced they have a crucial place in understanding Cold War anxieties at the time of their making. What, it might be asked, was their role in underwriting a public image of the Bomb? How should the different visual protocols of journalistic, documentary, touristic, and post- documentary nuclear photography be understood? Are there historical meanings that can be attributed to one of these categories, but not to the others? This paper will address an instance in which photography participated in the construction of the atomic imaginary during the Cold War. "Ever since cameras were invented in 1839, photography has kept company with death," writes Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others, a book deliberating on the hurt and spectacle of war and disaster. My title, "Camera Atomica," means to recall the title of Roland Barthes's book, Camera Lucida, a meditation on the relationship of photographic representation and trauma. For Barthes, cameras are "clocks for seeing" and photographs work to superimpose present reality on the past. The title is also indebted to Paul Virilio's observation in War and Cinema that the technologies of photography and warfare since the mid-nineteenth century have not only become all-pervasive, they have also developed a fatal interdependence.

Co-sponsored by the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada and the Department of Art History and Communications Studies, McGill University

John O'Brian is Professor of Art History and Faculty Associate of the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, University of British Columbia. He has published extensively on modern art history, theory and criticism, particularly on the institutionalization of modernism in North America, producing 12 books and more than 50 articles. These include: Ruthless Hedonism: The American Reception of Matisse; Voices of Fire: Art, Rage, Power, and the State (co-edited with Bruce Barber and Serge Guilbaut); The Flat Side of the Landscape; and Degas to Matisse. He is also the editor of the four-volume edition of Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism. His current research interests focus on national landscape narratives, especially as they are played out in North America, and on visual responses in art and photography to nuclear threat and destruction since 1945.

Image: "An atomic explosion recently conducted by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission," Mirro-Krome postcard, Bob Petley: Phoenix, Arizona, before 1955. Based on a U.S. Army photograph.