The Mushroom Cloud Photograph: Preview of Digital Audio Workshop for SOHA Conference

Rachel Fermi holds the snapshot of the first atomic bomb explosion.  Jack Aeby, photographer. Event date: July 16 1945, New Mexico. 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. 

Rachel Fermi holds a photograph of her grandfather, Enrico Fermi, and his brother, Giulio. Enrico's brother died in childhood, and Enrico dealt with his extreme grief by reading about physics. Foreground: photo of Enrico Fermi (right) and his brother Giulio in Rome, Italy. Background Rachel Fermi

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.”


Box of photos and Enrico Fermi memorabilia (including one of his slide rules) with the Jack Aeby color photograph of the first atomic bomb explosion (the Trinity Test in July, 1945) 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 explosion: the Trinity Test, July 16, 1945. This was about three weeks before the bombing of Hiroshima)
 
Detail image of the color snapshot  of the first atomic bomb explosion in 1945 (photo by Jack Aeby)

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? 

Rachel Fermi gestures to to one of the photographs on the back cover of her book, 'Picturing The Bomb' 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.”

From the Enrico Fermi photos and memorabilia box: two photos of Enrico Fermi. Rachel Fermi told me that the one on the left is a standard photograph, and the one of the right is Enrico with a 'mad scientist' expression. 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.”

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on March 21, 2011 in • HistoryPhotographs
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