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Book Review: Atomic Studies in Blue


Book Review Atomic Studies in Blue By Elin O'Hara Slavick Reviewed by Colin Pantall The cover image of Elin O'Hara Slavick's new book, After Hiroshima is perfectly chosen. It's a cyanotype printed on book cloth. White flashes light up the blue page, falling in and out of focus. There are larger dots of fuzzy white mixed with sharper round pieces of debris that look like a photograph of a supernova.

After Hiroshima. Photographs by Elin O'Hara Slavick.
Daylight Books, 2013.
 
After Hiroshima
Reviewed by Colin Pantall

After Hiroshima
Photographs by Elin O'Hara Slavick
Daylight Books, 2013. Hardbound. 128 pp., 56 color illustrations, 9-1/2x9-1/2".


The cover image of Elin O'Hara Slavick's new book, After Hiroshima is perfectly chosen. It's a cyanotype printed on book cloth. White flashes light up the blue page, falling in and out of focus. There are larger dots of fuzzy white mixed with sharper round pieces of debris that look like a photograph of a supernova.

It's a beautiful image, even though it has an air of violence to it that is conjured from the title of the book, After Hiroshima. See the picture, read those words and already we are wondering what this picture could represent – it's clear it's a remnant picture but what of? It's only when we look back at the index that we find out, Dead Hiroshima Flowers, a poignant touch that unites the past with the present both historically and photographically.


After Hiroshima, by Elin O'Hara Slavick. Published by Daylight Books, 2013.

The next picture is a cyanotype of a bottle melted in the blast. Bottles somehow capture the violence of a nuclear explosion better than any other object. Shomei Tomatsu's famous picture of a melted bottle brought home how heat and radiation got under the skin of the material, changing it from something inert and solid into something organic and fragile. Tomatu's bottle became a living dead thing, a slaughtered rabbit, a piece of meat that has been scorched from the inside out and back again, a bottle that found human equivalence in Tomatsu's shadowed picture of a hibakusha's scarred neck.

After Hiroshima, by Elin O'Hara Slavick. Published by Daylight Books, 2013.

Slavick's bottle replicates these layers of life and death, but with a lyrical touch. In After Hiroshima, she takes objects from Hiroshima's Peace Museum Archive and transforms them into delicate things of sad beauty. Slavick's pictures are, writes James Elkins in an accompanying essay 'shadows of shadows of shadows.' The first shadows are the 'death shadows' that were seared into the Hiroshima ground by the original blast, there is a 'second set of shadows cast by the objects preserved in the museum in Hiroshima' and the photographic shadows made by Slavick's photographic processes.

Slavick finds parallels between the history of the atomic age and that of photography in her own essay. They are 'intertwined' writes Slavick; uranium was discovered through photography, through an inadvertent radioactive photogram caused by a piece of uranium left on a photographic plate.

After Hiroshima, by Elin O'Hara Slavick. Published by Daylight Books, 2013.

Slavick references this history in her images; combining cyanotypes, rubbings and contact prints with autoradiography ('capturing radioactive emissions from objects on x-ray film'). The cyanotypes come first, fragments of melted metal spelled out in white on a blue cyanotype background. There are belt buckles, a hair comb and numerous bottles. Pictures of a broom and a shovel leads to ones of leaves and the cover pictures of flower, a life preserved but distant and unreachable.

The rubbings are made by placing paper directly onto surfaces exposed to radiation, then rubbing crayon over these to make a '…negative imprint with which to make a "positive" photographic contact print,' writes Slavick. 'Tracing and touching the sites of survival, destruction, exposure, and history seem to capture and essence of the trauma…'

After Hiroshima, by Elin O'Hara Slavick. Published by Daylight Books, 2013.

These rubbings have a life of their own; they are somehow childlike and fitting to the site, evocative of a previous age; solid, stone-like and textured in appearance. In exhibition some were huge (one of Koko-Kyo Bridge measured 6 feet by 20 feet), making it apparent that this is a project that extends beyond the book form. That sense is compounded by the book being very much of a catalogue in its form. But for all that, it is full of beautiful work that is beautifully thought out to fit both the history of what happened at Hiroshima and the way that the physical nature of photography can touch upon and preserve the memory of that event.—COLIN PANTALL

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COLIN PANTALL is a UK-based writer and photographer. He is a contributing writer for the British Journal of Photography and a Senior Lecturer in Photography at the University of Wales, Newport.http://colinpantall.blogspot.com

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