TIME Out There

Hiroshima: Ground Zero 1945

Rare, once-classified U.S. government photographs of the aftermath of atomic bombing of Hiroshima make up a new exhibit at the International Center of Photography called Hiroshima: Ground Zero 1945. These post-apocalyptic pictures had a profound effect on civil defense architecture during the Cold War, but only now can their historical significance, emotional power, and tragic beauty be appreciated.

Post updated with additional images May 23rd

Verbal and written accounts of the destruction of Hiroshima by atomic bomb on August 6, 1945 are well known, but photographic images of it have always been relatively rare. While the U.S. government attempted to control the circulation of any such images following the end of World War II, the irony is that it was also the source of the largest body of photographs of the aftermath of the event. That work, made in 1945 for the United States Strategic Bombing Survey — initially classified and subsequently lost for more than 40 years — is the basis for a new exhibition at the International Center of Photography called Hiroshima: Ground Zero 1945, and an accompanying catalogue from ICP/Steidl.

Photographers in the Physical Damage Division of the Survey were tasked with documenting the broad extent and mundane detail of atomic destruction for later analysis by architects and civil engineers. The images they made helped form the basis for civil defense architecture in the U.S., especially in the early part of the Cold War, from the design of bomb and fallout shelters to suburbanization.

Much like the pictures in Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan’s Evidence, these photographs are removed from their original “useful” context, and presented as both historical documents and art objects. They also open up a new avenue of understanding of the scope of violence and destruction at the original “Ground Zero.” Sixty-five years of obscurity have not robbed these literally post-apocalyptic pictures of any of their emotional power, nor their tragic beauty.

Hiroshima: Ground Zero 1945 is on view from May 20 to August 28, 2011 at the Museum of the International Center of Photography.

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