The Science section in today’s New York Times has a fascinating article that immediately took me back about 60 years, and focuses on an area of documentary photography that prematurely ended the lives of many photographers involved in that work. Between 1946 and 1962, the U.S. carried out hundreds of atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons, at sites in the South Pacific and in Nevada. I used to see newsreel footage of some of these events but never gave much thought to the photographers who recorded the tests and what happened as a result in their own lives. I also remember that detachments of U.S. troops were made to witness some of the tests so that the effects on humans could be measured. For all I know, there may have been volunteers (Men, we’ve got a special assignment… who wants an extra weekend pass?)
In the Times piece, a lot of credit is given to a 2006 book, How To Photograph an Atomic Bomb, by Peter Kuran, a special-effects filmmaker in Hollywood. There’s no point in my recapping the article, since we’ve given you the link, but I remember that era very vividly. I had just started elementary school in 1947, and, along with inkwells in our desks (that had to be filled after school by boys who had misbehaved during the day) and blackboard erasers that had to be cleaned (by those same boys), the “Duck and Cover” routine was a part of school. We were actually made to believe that if we immediately got under our wooden desks and put our crossed our arms over our heads, we’d be safe from injury.
Long before the letters “CD” came to represent “compact disc” or “certificate of deposit,” there was Civil Defense, which was where Duck and Cover and fallout shelters came from. I know that in certain parts of New York City, there are buildings that still have the yellow and black signs letting the public know that these shelters are to be found inside. They’re just about as comforting as the signs along coastal highways that denote “Evacuation Route” (yes, we’ll just be calm and orderly as tidal waves race toward us at twice the speed we’re traveling, if we’re moving at all.)
Anyway, take the time to read the New York Times article and watch the YouTube video before you call in any nuclear strikes.