The Photocaptionist, a platform set up by Federica Chiocchetti devoted to the relationship between images and words, presents a monthly series of photo-literary explorations. Here, she responds to an image from David Fathi's series Anecdotal, exploring the myths and metaphors surrounding the atomic bomb.
The Photocaptionist pairs an image from David Fathi’s series Anecdotal with a quote by Vice Admiral Blandy, Commander of the Operation Crossroads, quoted in Gerard J. DeGroot, The Bomb: A Life, 2005:
“The bomb will not start a chain reaction in the water converting it all to gas and letting all the ships in all the oceans drop to the bottom. It will not blow out the bottom of the sea and let all the water run down the hole. It will not destroy gravity. I am not an atomic playboy, as one of my critics labelled me, exploding these bombs to satisfy my personal whims.”
When French photographer David Fathi started his project on the Cold War-era nuclear arms race, his intentions were serious and documentary. But as he gathered research material, his interest gravitated towards the uncanny and at times surreal anecdotes surrounding nuclear testing – stories of bombs lost and never found (or inadvertently dropped in the back yard of a family home), vaporised chickens, parties and pageants, and a bikini described by its French designers as “like the atom bomb, small and devastating”. His project Anecdotal fuses these often absurd narratives with archival images of the bomb, such as satellite pictures, civil defence film stills, pack shots, and road-trip snapshots, to offer a tragicomic investigation of the nuclear age’s strangest moments.
Reproduced here is Don English’s iconic 1957 shot of Lee A. Merlin, winner of the last Miss Atomic Bomb beauty pageant in Las Vegas. The competition was organised to coincide with the controversial Operation Plumbbob – a series of nuclear tests – and Merlin triumphantly celebrates her prize by parading her mushroom cloud swimsuit; the Nevada Test site was only 65 miles from Las Vegas and atomic bomb fever infected the city, with viewings of the explosions rivalling the slot machines and gambling tables as a magnet for tourists.
Superimposed on Merlin’s starlet features is a satellite view of a nuclear crater, and by appropriating the ridiculousness of this naïve sexual exploitation and combining it with the devastation of landscape, Fathi questions America’s fusion of Cold War propaganda and base consumerism. In doing so, he also invites us to reflect on notions of the collective unconscious and the psychological manipulation of the masses, who, knowingly or unknowingly, contributed to a dangerous discourse which depicted the atomic bomb as alluring and desirable.
Intriguingly, Vice Admiral Blandy, the commander of the Bikini Atoll Test (1946-58), referenced bottoms and holes in the mystical and eschatological speech in which he firmly rejected the criticism he received after the appearance of the controversial photograph, Atomic Age Angel Food, which showed him cutting a mushroom-cloud cake with his wife and Rear Admiral F.J. Lowry. He is not an “atomic playboy”, exploding these bombs to satisfy his personal whims, he proclaims – but what is an “atomic playboy”? While the masses were distracted and aroused by sexual metaphors, the fetishisation of the mushroom cloud and the spectacle of explosions viewed through UV glasses from casino rooftops, the governments of the day were left free to pursue their atomic agenda.
By revisiting these narratives rather than the apocalyptic threats that generated them, Fathi hopes to help us rethink our reality, he says, “and the dissonance between the world we believe we live in and the one we have actually built”.