Picturing Armageddon #1

PART ONE: HIROSHIMA HEROIC “In that terrible flash 10,000 miles away, men here have seen not only the fate of Japan, but have glimpsed the future of America”. – ‘Dawn of a New Atomic Era’, James Reston, New York Times, 12 August 1945.


There are two perspectives of Hiroshima. They each illustrate and reinforce either an heroic or a tragic narrative. Heroic as seen by the victors above and tragic by the victims below the mushroom cloud.

For their part the Americans took three sorts of photograph on 6 August 1945. Firstly, the historical record of the first military use of an atomic weapon, what U.S. President Harry Truman described as “…the greatest thing in history!” Enola Gay the aircraft that dropped the bomb, had to perform a manoeuvre immediately after releasing the weapon to escape the blast. (Another aircraft would therefore film the explosion.)


There is movie footage, filmed with a handheld 16mm camera from The Great Artiste (one of two aircraft that flew over the target with the Enola Gay), the same aircraft also dropped scientific equipment to measure the effects of the explosion. One of the crew members was physicist Bernard Waldman who was to operate a special high-speed Fastax movie camera with six seconds of film in order to record the blast. Unfortunately, he forgot to open the camera shutter so no film was exposed.

Secondly, Reconnaissance photographs taken later to gauge the destruction.

Before and after photographs

And thirdly, souvenir snapshots taken by crew members including Second Lieutenant Russell Gackenback, the Navigator of Necessary Evil, who took two still photographs of the cloud about one minute after detonation using his own Agfa 620 camera.

Necessary evil Russell Gackenback

The movie footage is in colour, but shaky and of poor quality. It is does not convey the magnitude of what had been done. The written records of the crew (who were aware they were writing for posterity) do more to express the explosion’s “terrible beauty”. This lack of a powerful visual record goes a long way to explaining why few people have a mental picture of the explosion and instead recall the footage of the Trinity test explosion which took place a month earlier in New Mexico.

trinity fastax images

Despite being the greatest secret of the war some of the invited observers brought their own cameras and including environmental physicist Jack Aeby who took the only known well exposed colour photograph of the explosion using a 35mm Perfex 44.



The description did not do it justice.


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