The Mushroom Cloud Photograph: Preview of Digital Audio Workshop for SOHA Conference
Family history meets History history: For the Digital Audio Workshop I’m teaching at the SOHA Conference, I will work from an interview with the granddaughter of the physicist who conducted the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. Photographer Rachel Fermi talks about discovering a color snapshot of a mushroom cloud in a box of family photographs. That discovery led her to create (with co-author Esther Samra) a book-length photo essay of the Manhattan Project, called Picturing The Bomb.
Here’s a little foretaste of the audio we will work with at the workshop, which takes place in a week and a half in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles.
And yes, you can still register!!
Here are some photos from the interview (during the last days of 2010), and four short edited audio excerpts.
In the FIRST AUDIO RECORDING [MP3, 1:07], Rachel describes the background—how she’s related to Enrico Fermi, and what she was told about him when she was young. (Although she was born in the United States, Rachel grew up in Cambridge, England.)
“I was told a little bit about my grandfather. I knew that he was a physicist, and I knew that he’d won a Nobel Prize. But as I was growing up, I didn’t really understand what a Nobel Prize was.”
SECOND AUDIO RECORDING [MP3, 2:55]: Rachel describes how she discovered the color snapshot of the mushroom cloud from the first atomic bomb explosion in a box of family photographs.
“And in this shoe box of pictures—you know, full of the normal stuff like babies, picnics, those kinds of things—there was this little tiny faded red photograph with a tiny little sort of cream-colored mushroom cloud in the middle of it. And I was like, ‘Oh my god—what is this?’”
If you have time to listen to one recording, listen to this.
The discovery of these two photos launched a major research project. If there were photographs of the Manhattan Project in her own family collection, what about the collections of other people who were involved with the project?
In the THIRD AUDIO RECORDING [MP3, 2:55], Rachel describes the research process, and the kinds of images they found. In addition to official documentation photographs, there were candid family snapshots and PR photographs.
“As we were doing more and more research, we realized that the Manhattan Project wasn’t in just one location. The two other main locations were Hanford, Washington and Oak Ridge, Tennessee. And so there were sort of secret towns set up in both those places where people were working on building the first atomic bombs without even knowing what they were working on. And also what was interesting is that a lot of the time people weren’t supposed to be taking photographs. But people are bringing up families and living their lives in these places, so of course they’re taking pictures.”
In the FOURTH AUDIO RECORDING [MP3, 2:02], Rachel touches on the people she met (people with first-hand experience working on the Manhattan Project), and some things she learned about her grandfather.
“I understood better how the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction in Chicago really opened the gate. And that code word, ‘The Italian Navigator has landed in the new world’—now I really understood what that meant.”