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The first official image in Camera Atomica is an x-ray; the first x-ray, actually, taken by physicist Wilhelm Rontgen, of his wife’s hand (her wedding ring is still visible as a rather large lump).
The discovery of this miraculous technology — it “makes the invisible visible” curator John O’Brian proudly proclaims — was an accident. But it was also our first, fumbling step into the atomic age, our first grasp of a power that would come to (quite literally) rewrite the DNA of the human experience.
“When Rontgen’s wife saw it, she was shocked. She said, ‘I’ve seen my own death,’” O’Brian explains, pointing to the image and pausing for dramatic effect. “That sort of predicted some of the worst sides of it. But this shows you there’s really a fatal interdependence between the camera and nuclear fission.”
O’Brian’s exhibit gathers some of the most powerful photographic images of the last 120 years of nuclear power — not, he says, to get us to contemplate our own deaths, but to bring attention back to an issue that’s still humming in the background of our everyday life. Nuclear annhilation may not be quite the existential threat it once was, but as incidents like Fukushima remind us, you can’t really bury an issue that has a half-life of 4.5 billion years.
Today the debate about nuclear is subsumed mostly under a more present threat to the world, climate change: its general lack of emissions has had some stump for it as a way of weaning ourselves off fossil fuels. Against that are some powerful images seared into the collective unconscious, not the least of which is a billowing mushroom cloud blotting out the sky.
Ironically enough, those images, which carry such horrid portents in this day and age, were originally used purely as propaganda — proof of humanity’s mastery over technology, our big booming steps into a new era.
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