“Nagasaki Journey—The Photographs of Yosuke Yamahata”
“Meridel Rubenstein: Critical Mass”
The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to physicist Joseph Rotblat for his 50-year protest against nuclear weapons offers a timely gloss on three current exhibitions examining the consequences of atomic warfare. Rotblat’s career is a rebuttal to those who contend that the dangers of atomic power were poorly understood by the bomb’s creators, and the continuing relevance of his protest makes it difficult to consign the commentary of artists to the realm of the merely aesthetic. Two of the exhibitions—Helen Frederick’s at McLean’s Emerson Gallery and Meridel Rubenstein’s at the Troyer Fitzpatrick Lassman Gallery—investigate the responsibility for using knowledge humanely. Frederick and Rubenstein identify that responsibility as personal as well as communal, exactly the model represented by Rotblat.
The third exhibition, “Nagasaki Journey—The Photographs of Yosuke Yamahata” at the Washington Center for Photography’s new space at 406 7th St. NW, demonstrates what happened when that responsibility was not met. Yamahata was a 28-year-old Japanese army photographer sent to Nagasaki on Aug. 10, 1945, the day after the world’s second atomic bomb attack, to photograph the damage for possible military propaganda use. By his own account, Yamahata was overwhelmed and numbed by what he saw walking through the wreckage of Nagasaki and decided not to turn the film he shot over to his military superiors for fear it would be used to prolong the war.
Although a few of his images were published by some Japanese newspapers about 10 days later, Gen. MacArthur’s seven-year ban on printing any images of or information about the atom bomb or its destruction prevented their publication during the American occupation. They were eventually published in 1952, but soon after his book Atomized Nagasaki appeared, Yamahata withdrew the images from circulation, dismayed at what he termed their misuse by anti-nuclear groups. Since Yamahata’s death from cancer in 1966, the images have been available to those studying the nuclear industry and nuclear warfare. This exhibition, organized by Physicians for Social Responsibility (which, as part of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985), makes them accessible to international audiences. Among them are images removed from the Smithsonian’s Enola Gay exhibition last summer.
The photos report a dreadful scene. Occupying an intermediate aesthetic ground between document and artifact, they show rubble-strewn expanses contrasted with details of charred corpses, dead horses, and the passive misery of injured survivors. On the victims’ faces and bodies, Yamahata documents the sores and burns we now recognize as evidence of radiation exposure. In one astonishing image, a Shinto shrine gate stands intact, though everything else within the camera’s view is leveled, except for a few blasted trees. In additional scenes, uninjured survivors and rescue workers move through the wasteland, giving scale to the otherwise unintelligible destruction.
In a 1962 interview, Yamahata described feeling “calm and composed” as he walked through the ruins of Nagasaki, and reported that he “only photographed things that seemed unusual.” But he also found aspects of the scene perplexing in relation to his experience of other battlefields, and some of that incomprehension shows in the photos—they look as if he couldn’t understand what he was seeing and therefore had no way to frame and interpret it with his camera. Like the photographs of the Jewish Holocaust in Germany, these images attempt to describe scenes and meanings incommensurate with even heightened understanding. It may, in fact, be this inability to conceive of such extreme events that allows them to happen in the first place, and that makes it so difficult for history—both personal and communal—to absorb their consequences.
It is this task of personal integration that Helen Frederick undertakes in her elegiac installation at the McLean Project for the Arts’ Emerson Gallery. Born in the summer of 1945, shortly before American scientists detonated the first atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert, Frederick constructs her installation “CAUTION: Appearance(Dis)appearance” as a meditation on the personal implications of life in the atomic era.
Frederick is renowned for her work as the director of the Pyramid Atlantic print workshop and her commitment to the integrity and authenticity of the artist’s individual vision. She includes in this exhibition works created with computer and video technology, a mode of art production as different from traditional printmaking as nuclear weapons are from conventional ones. She says her inclusion of the electronic media represents a new direction, a way of incorporating their transformation of the way we learn about and understand the world into her work. But in spite of these mediums’ impersonal natures, the video and digital computer images actually extend the tone of reverie and concern established by the “handmade” elements of the show.
In spite of its intimate mood, “CAUTION” gives rise to wide-ranging reflections and speculations. Frederick situates her personal journey of memory in an impersonal context and uses the destruction of nature as her primary metaphor. At the center of the installation is a reconstruction of a contaminated overflow drain inspired by the artist’s encounter with similar ones in the Jornada del Muerto (Desert of Death), where the atomic bomb was tested before being used against Japan. Visitors approach the drain through one of two gates whose iron lintels form the incantation “Abracadabra,” and walk over straw-covered sand to reach the drain. Under a wire-mesh grill like the ones used in New Mexico to keep wildlife away from contaminated waste, Frederick has placed a “video book” featuring images of clouds and sunsets over oceans, as well as metamorphosing footage of birds—particularly herons. Elsewhere in the show are grids of herons in flight, herons poised for fishing, and herons as part of a morphed sequence of digitized images transforming from molecules into birds.
The show includes prints and photographs as well as installations. On one wall, a grid of hand-printed images, 50 in all, represent each year in the artist’s life. The autobiographical data they contain is layered into an elaborate personal symbol system that makes the grid as much an aesthetic feat as a diaristic one. On the opposite wall, a similar grid of digitized images displays a morphed sequence shifting from bomb molecule through heron-in-flight and back to bomb. There’s also a time line explicating the population explosion from the beginning of history to the middle of the next century, a shelf with three jars containing Chesapeake Bay water, pond water, and sand from White Sands, and a set of seven smoked flax papers called Aftermath, which abstractly and poetically evokes the consequences of a nuclear explosion. The high-tech elements include two TV monitors playing, respectively, a digitized image of flame and of ocean waves, each with a soundtrack of a voice muttering, “Caution.”
This inclusiveness is both the strength and weakness of the show. Though it is ostensibly aiming for a rich allusiveness, the rather literal, “this means this” explanations of many of the included images and objects interfere with the show’s coalescence into a focused aesthetic or conceptual whole. Individual pieces are intriguing, moving, or disturbing in surprising and interesting ways, but there’s also a kind of romantic helplessness that resists the artist’s stated intention of accepting the atomic (and electronic) world. Yet the overall effect is surprisingly similar to Yamahata’s—memorializing feelings for a pervasively poisoned world already lost.
In discussing her work with electronic images, Frederick notes enthusiastically that “it had effects I hadn’t imagined.” Her sentiments could be an epigraph for the atomic age, and they eerily echo those of the scientists who (unlike Rotblat) remained in New Mexico to develop the atomic bomb. It is that scientific community, and the Native Americans they lived among, that are the subjects of photographer Meridel Rubenstein’s “Critical Mass.”
Rubenstein’s show centers on Edith Warner, an Anglo-American in whose house members of the San Ildefonso Pueblo and many Manhattan Project scientists gathered during the war years. There the scientists sought respite from the secrecy and confinement of their lives at the Los Alamos Laboratory. Rubenstein’s photographs and photo-collages bring together portraits of figures from both communities as well as objects representing each group.
The images range from portraits of Drs. Edward Teller and Philip Morrison, who worked on the bomb, and Pueblo residents Isabel Atencio and Adrian Roybal to native artifacts and scientific objects relating to bomb construction. Among them are a reactor, a computer, a detonator, and a Coke bottle that survived the Trinity blast. Two photos show the bomb itself—looking like a rather endearing ’40s appliance—with images of people and landscapes reflected on its smooth surface. There are also images of Pueblo pottery, corn, and snakes (which, for this Native American group, are a symbol of destruction, not, as is the case in European iconography, of regeneration and rebirth).
Rubenstein’s exploration of the Manhattan Project’s context exemplifies another aspect of incommensurability. The exquisite palladian prints rest on steel shelves behind sheets of glass: They look like specimens or scientific tools, with no relationship to one another except a formal one. Even when they are linked by the strength of the artist’s aesthetic, it is difficult to relate an ear of corn to a 1954 image of a “Jezebel” reactor, a gas mask to a pottery vessel, or earth turned to glass from Hiroshima with photos of the San Ildefonso/Los Alamos Square Dance Club. In these works, and in the larger multimedia installation piece of which this show is a part, Rubenstein suggests symbolically the failure to feel relationships, and by implication the mind-set that allowed the creation and military use of the atom bomb.
It’s a happy accident of scheduling that presents Yamahata’s Nagasaki photos in Washington at the same time as Frederick and Rubenstein’s shows—it helps deflect the tendency to minimize the efforts of visual artists when they address pressing contemporary social concerns. Certainly the challenge of controlling emotionally and politically charged material is met in these cases, through Frederick’s choice of nature and technology as theme and metaphor and Rubenstein’s focus on the San Ildefonso Pueblo community. The witness of Yamahata’s photographs adds an irrefutable urgency to both contemporary artists’ work.