The Flash Made Flesh

by Mary Walling Blackburn & A. B. Huber

How we turn away quite leisurely from the disaster: an exchange.

"Flash Made Flesh" was commissioned by Triple Canopy through its 2010 call for proposals for the Thinking Through Images project area, supported in part by the Brown Foundation, Inc. of Houston.

Richard Mosse, Another Green World, Kisangani to Bukavu, Eastern Congo, 2010, detail.
Mary Walling Blackburn: What we are looking at never existed (or, rather, was never visible to the human eye). A forest the color of raw meat bisected by a teal river. Kodak Aerochrome Infrared accurately detects frequencies that parse camouflage from vegetation. Here, in the air between Kisangani and Bukavu in eastern Congo, false-color reversal film performs another task; it is no longer a tool for military reconnaissance or surveying forests. Richard Mosse, the photographer, disorders the aesthetics of conflict. None of these civilians and soldiers, ensnared in a decades-long civil conflict, really dwell in the camps of fuchsia woods and salmon-colored grasses. What ethical dimension does the visual suspension of the real take?
Edward Burtynsky, Nickel Tailings No. 34, Sudbury Ontario, 1996.

The surreal quality of these images responds to our desire to be distracted from trauma at the moment of engagement, to float near but not become engulfed by civil wars. Viewers tend to gloss the unmediated representations of rape and dismemberment, half-conscious of the manner in which these images contain our globalized relation to the Congo’s resources. Mosse’s photos unapologetically employ theater to fix our gaze on what is actually pictured. They use artifice to reconfigure what was presumed to be a given and cast aside normative constructions of the real. Has that not often been a queer labor?

A. B. Huber: I think photographs always simplify and falsify the world they show us, but Mosse’s Congo photographs also expose something of the instability and contingency of our perception. And yes, in this way Mosse keeps faith with a kind of queer critique, the hallmark of which is the impulse to make the power of objective claims visible: What is real, and who decides? The stakes are high when we are dealing with histories of violence, where one never knows if the devil of disbelief might outshout the devil of indifference.

There is something mad and maddening about the gaiety throughout Mosse’s “Infra” series. His photographs are terribly seductive tableaux vivants—all that fantastic color and sensuous surface, with the soldiers garbed in pink and posing. The heightened sense of artifice and stylization that Mosse relies on here is not the same as beauty, but perhaps his photos display that too. And so I worry some: Camp and the sublime can be modes of political disengagement—the risk is that the style of the photograph triumphs over its content.

I’m keen on your idea that Mosse “disorders the aesthetics of conflict” but for me, Mosse makes vivid how cruelty can be sublime and violence can ravage or remake a landscape in ways we may politically detest but also find visually arresting, even beautiful. It is that tension between attraction and aversion, perhaps inherent in our response to violence, that interests me. What if the primary problem with our response to representations of violence is not disinterest or distraction but satisfaction?

In this context, Edward Burtynsky’s photograph of the runoff waste from an industrial mineral mine in Canada (one of his “manufactured landscapes”) pairs well with Mosse’s Another Green World, no? Both suggest that the landscape can trenchantly testify to our human habits of destruction. But both also display that surreal quality you refer to Mary, surreal because realism only counts as such when what is depicted looks like the ordinary world to us, and yet in these photographs we re-encounter the fact that actual world can be fantastic and have an uncanny face.

I have another photo for you that works in this vein. It was taken by a soldier, Joe O’Donnell, in 1945, when he was just twenty-three. I’ve been thinking about it in terms of how the losses of war become abstract to us.

Joe O'Donnell, untitled photograph of the remains of Nagasaki, 1945.

It is a simple, even austere photo, a dense close-up of rubble—an unremarkable array of shards from the remains of Nagasaki. O’Donnell reports that this particular frame was taken at the ground-level hypocenter; that is, eighteen hundred feet below the spot midair where the bomb, after falling for forty-three seconds, finally exploded. As many as 80,000 people died in the city that day (140,000 by month’s end). Because of the extraordinary temperatures, human remains were either reduced to fine particulate or so fragmented and dispersed that they were nearly impossible to identify. O’Donnell claims that years later he showed this photograph to an orthopedic surgeon, who was able to identify in the image the bones of at least three people, one a child. But to the unpracticed eye there is only undifferentiated ruin; armed or disarmed by the forensic report, we can still only attend carefully to that opacity and to our own inability to see before us the figure of another human’s death.

MWB: By sharing this image, are you asking me to fall apart with you or to suture us together—to provide a meaning we can live with? There’s never been an appropriate way to flash disaster, to introduce the pornography of war.

ABH: Perhaps I am asking you to fall apart with me, Mary. It’s an invitation to be a bit deranged by violence, and I don’t mean that in a glib way.

MWB: People mention the blooming of oleanders in Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped. Do you also trust in some sort of perceived redemption? I ask because you claim that you look at this image without seeing death. Are you Lot’s wife but not Lot’s wife? Is that a redemptive turn?

ABH: No, I think the redemptive turn is obscene—in that instance we turn away from violence unchanged, sure of the same old bromides. Even the phrase “unspeakable violence” has become commonplace. But I do want to insist we look back: I hope I would ignore the angels and their admonitions and cast my lot with Lot’s nameless wife. Shouldn’t we look back, as she did to Sodom as sulfur and fire rained down, reducing it to rubble?

But there is a more general principle here. If we are trying to think about what kind of photographs might best affectively or politically move us, there is a paradox about arrest at the heart of it. We may need to stop or pause in order to proceed in a way that is not simply more of the same. And photographs might be uniquely suited to capturing us in this way—they can arrest us as viewers and in doing so interrupt our habits of perception. They can introduce a salutary estrangement.

O’Donnell’s rather unadorned photograph makes me see how easily I overlook death, even when the evidence is right before my eyes. I am not proud of my failure, nor am I redeemed by my recognition, but I think there is merit in reckoning with this. The photograph invites us to look in a way that, to me, has affinities with the kind of criticism Walter Benjamin described as stripping its object bare, not as “an unveiling that destroys the mystery but a revelation that does it justice.”

W. H. Auden reading “Musée des Beaux Arts.”
Pieter Bruegel, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, 1558.

MWB: Redemption requires distance, to move away from the blast, to be delivered by distance from grief. I do not always experience that distance. My grandmother Sekeiko Tatayami’s parents were killed in these bombings. (My mother cannot remember whether it was Hiroshima or Nagasaki.) When I was a baby, we lived beside the ruins of the Japanese internment camp at Heart Mountain, Wyoming, and took our walks there. When I was a child I believed that Sekeiko, as a small girl, lived without her parents in a US internment camp. In fact, Sekeiko was never there; she was living with her grandparents outside Kyoto. My mother tells me that Sekeiko came to San Francisco as the bride of an American soldier, who beat her to the point where she could no longer bear children. She later moved to Seattle, joined the Nichiren Shoshu of America temple, worked as a seamstress, and married my grandfather. She left candy bars on the shrine in their house in Seattle so that my mother and aunt would eat blessed things. She preferred to be called Peggy Blackburn.

Peggy née Sekeiko drove her car off a cliff. As a child, I thought that at the moment before her death—as she momentarily hovered above the earth—she must have been imagining her parents, alive and embodied, and the leveled ground. Suspended above land, somewhere between Idaho and Washington, she suddenly was in possession of a sightline not unlike that of the men who had bombed and photographed Hiroshima or Nagasaki thirty years prior. This is not unrelated to the ocular anxiety of our day: to see what is in front of us but also to generate simultaneously a variety of scopic deviations of the same scene in our mind’s eye. Flooded with aerial imagery, we have one eye to the sky and another to the earth, an awareness of the bomb above and the destruction below.

ABH: When you invoke the image of your grandmother in the moments before her death, momentarily suspended, it makes me think of W. H. Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts”: “how everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster,” how the human figure falling there is ordinary, overlooked, and most extraordinary. Auden can seem like such a prig; it’s almost easier to read the poem yourself in order to appreciate it, but who am I to tell you how to hear it?

The poem draws us in rather laconically. But as we are listening the boy is falling, disappearing; as you say, Mary, the distance is the privilege. Yet Auden is clear: Whether or not we are aware, our connection to suffering is real. The “expensive delicate ship” does not sail blithely but innocently forward—those onboard have “seen something amazing,” and their “calm” progress does not merely ignore but deepens, even causes suffering. Like the Bruegel painting it references, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, Auden's poem, written just before WWII, makes evident that the events of deepest pathos and importance tend to be on the edge of history, out of sight, or apparent but overlooked in the course of normal lives. The trouble with grief is that so often we feel so little of it; it is not that we are exhausted by the exertions of our conscience, but that our conscience itself is frail, and our feeling for one another is impoverished.

MWB: Let’s reverse Auden; let’s reconfigure the Bruegel. This time, Icarus’s neglected but spectacular fall is witnessed and documented. The unobservant lone plowman is swapped for a military watercolorist, who has turned quite leisurely toward the disaster. Here we see an atomic bomb rising over the Nevada desert, delicately illustrated. The strokes are so fine that the sense of the scale of destruction is lost.

Watercolor of an atomic explosion, from the Department of Energy’s digital archive.

This watercolor bears no visual trace of disaster because the documentarian and his documents are far from the epicenter. The apocalypse is localized, leaving only invisible traces, since radioactivity only registers when you drag a Geiger counter over the exposed area, producing that telltale crackle.

ABH: It may seem like a strange impulse to put a painter on the ridge of a mountain in order to record the explosion of an atomic bomb, stranger still that the artist works in watercolors, which are so delicate and seemingly impermanent. But in fact watercolor painters commonly traveled with the geologic and archaeological expeditions funded by the British Society of Dilettanti (founded in 1734 in London as a gentlemen’s dining club) to document their “discoveries” in the Mediterranean, Asia, and the New World. Their aim was to produce accurate renderings of the most famous monuments of antiquity. Perhaps the mushroom cloud is a uniquely modern monument?

In late July of 1945, an Eastman Kodak company physicist responded to customers’ complaints about shipments of X-ray film that had arrived fogged despite being in sealed boxes, tracing the problem to an Indiana straw field. The straw-based cardboard used to make the shipping cartons was contaminated by radioactive fallout from the Trinity test, which had taken place more than one thousand miles away. The seen and the unseen converge in powerful if wholly unexpected ways. And we never know for sure where our destruction might begin and end.

In this film still, a researcher inspects a mannequin's leg after an atomic test blast.

MWB: The digital library on the Department of Energy’s website contains photographs from the 1950s documenting the effects of the atomic explosions on land (deep holes, incinerated pines, exploding ocean) and objects like model houses populated with mannequin families and canned food. In one clip (from one of the many films of atomic tests), the scene is outdoors and filled with sunshine, a human hand pulls up the skirt of a female mannequin. The intensity of the blast was such that the pattern of the skirt has been tattooed to the back of her thigh. The grope is so casual; leisure comes to mind, that leisurely turn toward the disaster. Is the researcher manhandling this girl that is not a girl? Later, when Hiroshima is bombed, John Hersey reports that “the burns had made patterns—of undershirt straps, and suspenders and, on the skin of some women (since white repelled the heat from the bomb and dark clothes absorbed it and conducted it to the skin), the shapes of flowers they had on their kimonos.”

In another Department of Energy image, two white male mannequins sit in a house destroyed by a staged atomic explosion. The flare of the flash illuminates blown-out blinds, a toppled lamp, upended female legs; the back of one suited mannequin, still seated, is sunny with glare. What’s striking is the look one “man” is giving the other. After the explosion, his whole body has shifted. He leans forward, one palm flat against his thigh. One hand closer, fingers curling. The other man’s shadow darkens his face—but still, his half smile is visible. And there’s the look. Desire? Love in the ashes.

ABH: I see it too. The photograph has a strangely sinister sexual feel to it. Perhaps it is disarming because she seems abandoned, and they seem disinterested in the disaster? But what staggers me is the way the flash of the camera seems to mimic or reenact the light of the explosion, invoking the affinities between photographic exposure and the action of atomic light.

We all know that there is no longer a strong distinction between imaging and targeting. All our weapons have cameras; the bombsight and the video feed (operated by a pilot in the Nevada desert thousands of miles from the battlefield) are viewed through the same lens. One early camera, the "pistolgraph," bore little resemblance to a small arm or pistol, but the fact that it needed to be aimed and shot, and that it was held in the hand—unusual for the wet-plate period of photography—encouraged the conflation of the camera with the gun. Thomas Skaife once endeavored to take a "pistolgram" of Queen Victoria someplace near Windsor, and he was arrested as an assassin. This albumen print of Skaife’s is one of the earliest attempts at high-speed photography.

MWB: To make an image is also to make a threat. Replication as assassination.

ABH: It reminds me of the atomic-bomb watercolors: There is something delicate about it, even when what we see is the cannon fire.

Thomas Skaife, Bombshell in Transitu, 1858.

MWB: You are transfixed by the tracer, its path through the air. After all, we began this in the air. We started with Mosse’s photographs from the plane and continued to touch upon bodies falling. Once the object (plane, camera, person) returns to earth, the impulse is to recuperate the gaze in motion. After the filmmaker Albert Lamorisse’s helicopter went down during the filming of Baadeh Sabah (The Lover’s Wind) in 1970, his footage was fished from the remains. He had been commissioned by the prerevolutionary Iranian government to reveal a modern country from the air. The narrator of the film, which was completed in 1978, is the voice of the wind, touching all that it sees, touching the final shots of the dam and the lake.

ABH: I have a final image, taken midair. It is the last image recorded on an Iraqi pilot’s HUD, or “head-up display.” The pronged blur in the center of the image is an incoming missile from an American F-15. After the Iraqi’s plane crashed, a US special-operations team combed the MiG’s crash site and salvaged this image—that last millisecond of incoming data. The photograph is a blur of blue. Reproduced, it is the size of a Polaroid and with the same almost heady saturation of color.

We know that the missile will detonate and take the pilot’s life in an instant, in no time at all, but the photograph remains silent on the question of what sense this man might have made of finding himself precisely there, midair, and marked for death. The American pilot, Cesar Rodriguez, who shot down the Iraqi pilot, has the photograph framed on his wall as a kind of war souvenir. “The guy who is actually sitting in the cockpit staring out at this, he’s locked on to me with his radar,” he told the Atlantic in 2009. Pointing to the missile, he continued, “And that is about to hit him in the face.” Rodriguez has also signed the photo, like a death warrant in a peculiar past tense.

Looking at the photograph, I feel something of the awful suspension of this moment. I want to say that I can see how imminent death is, that what is haunting about the photograph is just how insubstantial the curtain is between living and dying. But what might it mean to claim that I can see death impending, that, if only for a moment, I can see myself in the position of the targeted? There are countless forces that have made it hard to see the thread of causation between my life and his death, but the photograph can restore a filament of relation, a sense that there is something to attend to between us. Might this sense of relation make our attention to the photograph a passage into politics and ethics?

View of an incoming missile in an Iraqi pilot's "head-up display."