Earlier this month, The Nation posted a slide show (still viewable here) based on a current exhibit in New York City at one of the leading centers for photography in the world, titled “Hiroshima Ground Zero 1945.” Now the International Center for Photography has published, with Steidl, a valuable 248-page book of the same title. It features essays by John W. Dower (the Pulitzer-winning author), Adam Harrison Levy and David Monteyne, and is edited by the curator of the exhibit, Erin Barnett, and Philomena Mariani.
When “Hiroshima: Ground Zero 1945” opened at ICP in June, the New York Times gave it prominent coverage. The story behind the exhibit was, indeed, intriguing, as Levy tells us in his essay in the book: A diner owner and antiques collector in Massachusetts had discovered a large group of photos inside a discarded suitcase. The pictures once belonged to an engineer named Robert L. Corsbie, who had died and left them in his basement. Corsbie, it turned out, was part of the group of engineers, scientists, and military personnel sent to the atomic cities in the fall of 1945, as part of the massive US Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS), to study the effects of the bomb.
The hundreds of declassified, black-and-white pictures that survived fully capture the bomb’s impact on buildings: broken cement, twisted metal, rubble everywhere. The book/catalog admits this is only part of the story. You would hardly know from this collection that tens of thousands died in Hiroshima. A school boy’s charred jacket hangs on a chair and the caption reveals that it “started to smolder” nearly four thousand feet from Ground Zero. And the boy himself? This clinical approach, however, reflected that US unit’s mission, and we are haunted by the emptiness.
My book covers a second USSBS unit, which arrived in January 1946, this time with movie cameras—shooting (then rare) color footage. That team, too, was ordered to concentrate on filming only physical effects, but appalled by the still-lingering and quite horrid human effects, they also turned their attention to people. Naturally, all of this footage was subsequently suppressed by the US—for decades.The US also hid for decades all of the footage shot by Japanese newsreel teams.
The Hiroshima Ground Zero 1945 book collects the black and white photos with detailed captions. The essays by Dower and Levy are excellent and the book closes with a lengthy chapters by Monteyne on “The Legacy of Hiroshima: CIvil Defense & Architecture,” a kind of history with wonderful illustrations.
Greg Mitchell’s new book is titled Atomic Cover-up: Two U.S. Soldiers, Hiroshima & Nagasaki, and The Greatest Movie Never Made.