For me, therefore, the Art Gallery of Ontario’s brilliant exhibition, Camera Atomica–fearful, exhausting, troubling and exhilarating in the breadth and depth of its scholarship–was almost a trip down memory lane. For me, Camera Atomica offered a rueful, aching nostalgia.

John O’Brian who organized the exhibition, is Professor of Art History at the University of British Columbia. Four years ago, he co-wrote a book called Atomic Postcards: Radioactive Messages from the Cold War, and then, two years later, in 2013, produced the exhibition, Strangelove’s Weegee (2013). O‘Brian is the editor of the ambitious book-catalogue that accompanies the Camera Atomica exhibition–and one of its seven essayists. The book makes for reading that is–while unfailingly enlightening–as grim as a tour of the exhibition.

John O’Brian is an astute and affecting writer. He has unerring theatrical instincts and a satisfying sense of form, launching the book and the exhibition with this grim overture: he offers an astonishing photo–physicist Wilhelm Rontgen’s Bertha Rontgen’s X-rayed Hand from 1895–and uses it, in his “Introduction: Through a Radioactive Lens,” to begin a terrible journey into the grim, 20th century axiom that “Wherever nuclear events occur, photographers are present.”

About Rontgen’s X-ray photo of his wife’s hand, O’Brian reports that “On being shown the resulting ghostly image, in which her fingers, one adorned with a wedding ring, look spectral, Bertha Rontgen declared: ‘I have seen my own death’.” The invention of the X-ray and Bertha Rontgen’s exclamation upon being shown the photograph of her hand…“foreshadow the disordered histories of the atomic age that have followed. In 1945, half a century after Rontgen’s discovery,” continues O’Brian, “the human species developed the capacity to destroy itself.”

All along the way, throughout both the exhibition and the book, there are terrible-beautiful photographs of mushroom clouds (how uselessly lyrical this pastoral, self-cancelling name is!), many of the best of them earnestly taken by the U.S Army Photographic Signal Corps and the U.S. Army Air Force in 1944-45.

Did Greta Garbo really say–the epigram heads up O’Brian’s essay, “Nuclear Flowers of Hell”–that “Nuclear explosions are beautiful, at a distance”? Well, grim as the idea may seem, there’s indisputable truth in it. Just look at the exquisite, burgeoning, breast-like, glans-like images of the Trinity Test Explosion of July 14, 1945 by Berlyn Brixner. And how admirable of O’Brian, by the way, to quote William Carlos Williams’ bleak little poem, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” (the asphodel being an ancient flower of mourning): “The bomb / also / is a flower….”

One of the most compelling sections of the exhibition (and the book) is Julia Bryan-Wilson’s “Posing by the Cloud: US Nuclear Test Site Photography in Process.” This essay (and the section of Camera Atomica embodying it), writes Bryan-Wilson, explores “a narrow archive, a subgenre within the genre of nuclear test photography” image of atomic tests in which the camera itself also appears.”

This fallout from a rather creepily self- reflexive, slightlly self-congratulatory photo- activity (Bryan-Wilson cites filmmaker Peter Kuran’s 2006 book, How to Photograph an Atomic Bomb as a useful source for such images) turns up some of the most riveting photographs of this compelling exhibition: The United States Department of Energy’s News Nob, Nevada Test Site, established April 22, 1952, for example, showing not the exploding bomb, but rather a forest of stick-like tripods, surmounted by cameras- at-the ready, and nonchalantly attended to by photographers waiting impatiently for the upcoming blast. Or the alarmingly beautiful photograph (I suppose Garbo was right) by the “U.S. Military” cited as Operation Priscilla, taken at the moment of the shockwave, 1957 / Camera Crew at Exact Moment of Shockwave Arrival, Nevada Test Site, 1957. For me, this brief but haunting examination lies at the epicentre of both the exhibition and its attendant book.

There’s a truly horrifying collection of photos of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And Hiromitsu Toyosaki’s disturbing “Hidden and Forgotten Hibakusha: Nuclear Legacy” (“Hibakusha” is a Japanese word approximately translated as “explosion- affected people”).

Photographer Blake Fitzpatrick provides “Atomic Photographs Below the Surface,” a not-so-interesting, rather infra-dig examination of “the staging of photographic exhibitions that depict nuclear subjects.”

This is followed by the horrifying black-comedy of “Uranium and Radiation,” one of the sinkholes of which is an unforgettable photograph by Harold Whyte, Stocking Groceries for Bomb Shelter, 4 December 1960, of an irritatingly vacuous woman (sweater, string of pearls, prim earrings) strolling in a horn-of-plenty supermarket, pushing ahead of her two shopping carts laden with canned goods — against a rainy nuclear day.

Both the Camera Atomica exhibition and its book seem to grow steadily — if darkly — more aestheticized as they progress. In “Visible and Invisible,” you will find a lethal prettiness: William Eggleston’s Huntsville, Alabama, c.1968 (a portly businessman caressing the phallic nose of a fleshy pink missile), David McMillan’s rosy, twilight idyll, Sinking Boat on the Pripyat RiverChenrobyl, October 1998, and his ghastly Nursery, Pripyat Hospital, 1995.

And John Timberlake’s mercilessly, dispiritingly ironic, heavy-handed painting, Another Country xi, 2001. And John Scott’s massive, and rather mawkish, two-part drawing from 1986, The Collaborati0onist, showing portraits — neither of which seem to be entirely in the artist’s own hand — of Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller.

The whole thing ends a bit queasily with “The Wrong Sun,” an annoyingly cheap but seductive excerpt from Douglas Coupland’s essentially onanistic 1994 novel, Life After God.

After which comes Susan Schuppli’s “Radical Contact Prints”, a not uninteresting but essentially addendum-like examination of radioactivity’s unlooked for impress upon photographs themselves. What is really a coda is just not up to anchoring the last section of an exhibition or a last chapter of a book that is this emotionally large.

And so the Camera Atomica experience – as exhibition and book – winds down from its earlier splendours and miseries into a sort of diminishing half-life whereby its earlier urgencies and warnings are somehow allowed to dissipate themselves. It’s not a good finish for a great exhibition. 

The Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
July 8, 2014 — January 25, 2016