Edgerton, an MIT professor, received a top secret contract from the US government to film the first bomb test in the New Mexico desert in 1945, as well as several subsequent tests. He invented the rapatronic (Rapid Action Electronic) camera for this purpose, with a shutter speed of just two microseconds. This enabled him to capture the very instant the nuclear blast began.
These ghostly pictures were taken 7 miles from the blast site:
|The beast of extinction, unchained for the first time|
Edgerton's photos remind me of Phil Hale's skull paintings:
As nuclear weapons proliferate, it becomes more difficult to run the calculations in the Great Actuarial Table and arrive at anything resembling a happy ending. After all, we can never un-learn the knowledge of how to inflict catastrophic harm on humanity and the biosphere. That power can only become more widely disseminated, easier to use and harder to prevent.
The math suggests we're living in penultimate times. What can art contribute to all this?
Art and mortality have been friends since the very beginning; individual death has always been one of our greatest sources of inspiration. Yet, artists have never quite figured out how to react to death's ugly big brother, extinction.
Oh sure, there have been pretenders along the way. The Black Death in Europe had the potential to end the world, and it not only inspired artists such as Bruegel, Bosch, Chaucer and Defoe, but helped to usher in the Renaissance by breaking the repressive grip of the feudal system and the church, thereby awakening the modern western mind. As another example, the genocide of World War II was pretty damn impressive. After the war, Picasso (who had painted Guernica a few years before) walked through the gas chambers at Birkenau in stony silence. That night he turned to his friends and said soberly, "We had to come here to understand. To think that painters once thought they could paint 'The Massacre of the Innocents.'"
But all of those precedents were redeemed by the belief that there would be, in the end, a surviving audience to bear witness to (and give meaning to) the art. That may not be the case with a nuclear event.
Artist Ralston Crawford was commissioned by Fortune Magazine to witness and illustrate one of the first atomic bomb tests in the south Pacific in 1946. Perhaps his senses were damaged by the blast, for he came up with this laughably inadequate reaction:
Another artist, Enrico Baj, sensed that the jig was up and urged in his manifesto that traditional painting be demolished and that art be re-invented to respond to the new reality. However, despite the sincerity of his intentions, his art was not up to the challenge.
Today an occasional museum exhibition will work up the nerve to take on this biggest theme of all. Artists such as Isao Hashimoto make their point effectively with hard data, while artists such as Carol Gallagher take a very personal and emotional approach and Jonathan Fetter-Vorm has prepared a graphic novel about the first Trinity explosion. Some of these efforts are more successful than others, but they are all well-intentioned.
The ancient Greeks tragedians understood that even a doomed person retains enough control to elevate his or her fate from mere misery to the dignity of tragedy. That a small consolation, but if it can help us extract some form of salvation from despair, it's still important.