Nuclear Imagery Photographed

By Jim Oakes | 1985-09-01 12:00:00

The Montréal photographer Robert Del Tredici, man's discovery of atomic fission can be likened to the myth of Prometheus stealing fire from the heavens: It's an energy that was never meant to exist on the planet, but now that it's here we'd better begin to understand it. "We have literally brought onto earth a kind of cosmic energy that the planet has not seen before, made from elements the planet has not had before-and it's an energy that happens with the speed of light, using radiation that we don't understand. Everything about it is off the scale for people who refer to things in a basically Newtonian framework.... The biggest riddle of this whole issue is how to get a grip on it How do you wrap your imagination around it?"

Since 1979, Del Tredici has been attempting to solve this riddle by using his camera to create a new "visual vocabulary" for the nuclear age. The result, after five years of extensive travel in the United States, Canada, Japan, and Europe, is an extraordinary documentary view of the nuclear cycle, from the point where uranium is mined from the earth to the sites where it is transformed into a gas, enriched, converted to a salt and then into a metal, extruded into rods, and fabricated into nuclear fuels and weapons parts. He has also photographed the reactors, warheads, and missiles, as well as the weapons test sites, the reprocessing facilities, and the nuclear waste dumps.

More than 100 photographs from this exhaustive undertaking are on display at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, as part of an exhibition called Environments Here and Now.

What Del Tredici has set out to do is make culturally visible the nuclear technologies that have changed the very nature of our world - and which have, for the most part, eluded our ability to visualize them.

"To find the images of something that existed but no one could really see was the supreme photographic opportunity and challenge," said the 47-year-old American-born photographer. "I'm trying to bring the thing down to earth so people can visualize it clearly, so that it's not just a swirl of abstract ideas, but something rooted in our social experience."

The images Del Tredici presents in the exhibition are striking in a number of ways. First, they illustrate the enormous scale of the nuclear industry-particularly the aerial views of the bomb factories which are shown spreading out over vast expanses of land. Then, there's the technology itself, like the shot of a giant nuclear-powered aircraft engine, sitting abandoned on the flat-beds at the National Engineering Laboratory in Idaho, or the subterranean view of the "N" tunnel test site in Nevada where a series of high blast doors slam shut to block the blast of a bomb explosion. But perhaps the most evocative are those images which portray the human side of the bomb: the scientists who work in the laboratories at Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore; the women of Greenham Common; the flight crew of a B-52 bomber; and a group of boys riding bikes on a radioactive waste site.

In one series called The Elders, we see portraits of the nuclear pioneers, men like Dr. Edward Teller, developer of the hydrogen bomb, who stare at the camera with a profound sense of sadness. "I wanted to go as close to the source as possible, to the actual pioneers," Tredici explains. 'As many of the scientists have pointed out to me, this did not exactly turn out the way they intended. It began with the brightest of hopes imaginable. But now I think that many of them are paying a certain personal price for their participation, because there is no reckoning how deep the atom goes.

Del Tredici's work also demonstrates a keen eye for the ironic: two overweight men pose like tourists in front of a duplicate casting of the Nagasaki Bomb, nicknamed the "Fat Man"; a scarecrow stands guard in a French vineyard with an enormous nuclear reactor under construction in the background; and the shell of a partially-vaporized Buddha sits imperturbably in the Hiroshima Peace Museum with a Xerox copier in the background.

The Canadian connection in the nuclear cycle is depicted in a set of three bleak images from Port Hope, Ontario. The first shows a storage yard for Uranium Hexafluoride gas containers with the sign "Port Hope" prominent on a warehouse in the background. Below it is a view of children playing in the playground of St. Mary's Primary School. An accompanying text notes that the school had been built on a landfill from the Eldorado Nuclear Refining Plant and was closed in December 1975 when radiation levels on the property were found to be twenty times higher than the federal safety limit allowed.

Although the photographer rejects the label "anti-nuke" artist, Del Tredici describes his work as "intensely political." And while he calls the collection an objective presentation, he leaves little room for doubt that the nuclear energy industry is inextricably linked to the making of nuclear arms. "I want to ground it in the bombs and make sure people understand that that's what we're talking about when they look at these other applications of the technology"

Del Tredici first began to document "things nuclear" in 1979, when he went to Three Mile Island to photograph and interview the people who lived through the nuclear reactor accident. After the Sierra Club published his work in the book, The People of Three Mile Island, his attention "naturally drifted" to the weapons industry.

"I thought if one nuclear reactor is this mysterious and profound, I wonder what all the weapons reactors are like where they make the bomb-because they're not answerable to environmental or public laws in the same way that a commercial nuclear reactor is."

After obtaining funding from the Canada Council, Del Tredici systematically mapped out all of the major installations across the U.S. and began the task of visiting each one. In order to capture the vast scale of the bomb factories he decided to rent a light aircraft and take aerial views. By doing this, he challenged the popularly held belief that flying over the installations to photograph them was forbidden. In fact, throughout the project, he was constantly surprised by the relative ease with which he could gain access to the facilities.

"In practically every place I've gone, they bend over backward to make sure that all of my needs are met-as long as they are within the acceptable limits.... I've been up front, I've written letters and I've gotten permission to go in. And I learned that the United States is permeable and fair in a way that I would have never imagined."

Del Tredici is aware that the exhibition is made somewhat lopsided by the absence of photographic evidence from the Soviet Union. However, he hopes to travel to the USSR in the near future to take as many photographs as the authorities will permit.

Robert Del Tredici's fascination with imagination and perception began early in life. Reared in a devout Catholic family, he has, as an important and lasting part of his early visual education, the habit of collecting "holy cards," iconic representations of prophets, saints, and martyrs of the Church. He attributes his present interest in the images of the nuclear physicists to his early involvement with this iconography. Among his earliest photographic influences were Dorothea Lang's pictures of the dustbowl during the Great Depression. '1 always wished that I lived in a time when I could photograph something like that, something big, social, and human that would come and go only once," he says. "Then I found the nuclear issue.... We live in a nuclear dust bowl kind of time. It's the end of the line, end of a certain kind of thinking, end of a certain way of living, and people are trying to evolve into the next stage... And I think it is very important that somebody should be generating images of it because I've ever get out of this situation alive, I think it'll be important to see where we were. And if we don't get out of it, I guess it doesn't matter what you did to keep occupied."

The photographs of Robert Del Tredici are on view at the National Gallery until September 2. A duplicate show has been in Japan In August for the 40th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Peace Magazine September 1985

Peace Magazine September 1985, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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