News from John O’Brien of an important exhibition and book. The exhibition is After the Flash: photography from the atomic archive, which runs from 10 October through 20 December 2014 at WORK gallery, 10A Acton Street in London.
Photography plays a crucial role in shaping public perceptions of the atomic age and its legacy of anxiety. Cameras not only record nuclear events, but also assist in their production—whether as agents of scientific measurement, propaganda or protest. They witness the unseeable on our behalf, giving form to the invisible forces and forbidden sites that haunt popular conceptions of the nuclear world.
After The Flash: Photography from the Atomic Archive explores the intertwined histories of photography and nuclear technologies, and the camera’s role in constructing the public image of atomic energy and ‘the bomb’. The exhibition contrasts the ‘technological sublime’ that dominates much nuclear-themed photography—from mushroom clouds to cooling towers—with representations of personal encounters and experiences, tracing the hazy lines between spectacle and humanitarian documentation. Photographic fragments offer insight into broader nuclear narratives and reveal recurring tensions between invisibility and visibility, and obliteration and transformation.
The exhibition comprises three sections. Cameras and Clouds reflects on the mutual development of photography and nuclear technologies, and the camera’s role in producing abstracted spectacle, social documentary and scientific record. The second section, At Work in the Fields of the Bomb, identifies the physical and ideological structures relating to nuclear applications, demonstrating the seepage of atomic landscapes and themes into existing social, economic and political narratives; this section draws its title from Robert Del Tredici’s landmark 1987 photographic study of the US nuclear weapons industry. Thirdly, The Culture of Contamination explores individual and social engagement with nuclear imagery and issues, ranging from anti-war protest to homemade fallout shelters and pop cultural appropriations. Anxiety finds an outlet in kitsch as the mythologies of nuclear power permeate culture on both official and vernacular levels..
Drawing on the extensive personal ‘atomic archive’ of art historian and curator John O’Brian, After The Flash focuses on North American visual culture in the early decades of the Cold War from the 1940s to the 1960s, coinciding with the emerging ‘golden age’ of photojournalism.
The exhibition in turn marks the publication of John’s edited book Camera Atomica, out later this month. It includes contributions from Julia Bryan-Wilson, Iain Boal and Gene Ray, Douglas Coupland, Blake Fitzpatrick, Susan Schuppli [of Forensic Architecture fame!] and Hiromitsu Toyosaki.
Camera Atomica is co-published by Black Dog Publishing and the Art Gallery of Ontario, and precedes a photographic exhibition at the AGO in 2015.