Thursday, July 14, 2011

Blast from the past...atomic oriented postcards

The message on the back of this 1958 postcard issued by the Farmington, New Mexico, Chamber of Commerce begins: “Hi folks—here’s a sample of real hygrade uranium ore. I’d be mighty pleased to send you information about this most promising and exciting area in America, and YOUR PLACE in its future. Write me soon, will you?”

Fort Sill Oklahoma postcard of the 280mm Atomic Cannon at Fort Sill's west range.

"Wish You Were—Boom!"

Postcards from the age of atomic tourism.


Tom Vanderbilt

July 13th, 2011


"Having a great time," reads the archetypical postcard. "Wish you were here." But what about when the "here" is the blasted, irradiated wastes of Frenchman's Flat, in the Nevada desert? Or the site of America's worst nuclear disaster? John O'Brian and Jeremy Borsos' new book, Atomic Postcards, fuses the almost inherently banal form of the canned tourist dispatch with the incipient peril, and nervously giddy promise, of the nuclear age. Collected within are two-sided curios spanning the vast range of the military-industrial complex—"radioactive messages from the Cold War," as the book promises. They depict everything from haunting afterimages of atomic incineration on the Nagasaki streets to achingly prosaic sales materials from atomic suppliers to a gauzy homage to the "first atomic research reactor in Israel," a concrete monolith jutting from the sand, looking at once futuristic and ancient. Taken as a whole, the postcards form a kind of de facto and largely cheery dissemination campaign for the wonder of atomic power (and weapons). And who's to mind if that sunny tropical beach is flecked with radionuclides?

There is something by turns comforting and disturbing in the fact that places like the Eniwetok Proving Ground—the Pacific atoll where tests like "Bravo" promised a thousand Hiroshimas—should have its own two-color lithograph postcard; and that the back of cards sent from places like the top-secret "City of the Atomic Bomb," Oak Ridge, Tenn., should have little more to announce than: "Plenty hot."

The postcard is a curious form. As historian Joe Moran notes, it "the epitome of what linguists call phatic communication: a message with no inherent content, sent for its own sake and simply saying, 'Hello, I'm here and you're there.' " In 19th-century England, it was viewed dimly by the upper classes. "They imagined that it would become all too easy for people to read other people's messages and private concerns," writes Frank Staff in The Picture Postcard and Its Origins, "and that it would become easy for people to indulge in public libel and defamation of character as a means of venting spite or malice."

Once the preserve of obsessive collectors—who fretted over such questions as how to classify a postcard that showed "a post-office in the foreground, a railway station which can just be glimpsed at the back, and a reasonable view of a tram travelling down the middle"—deltiology, or the study of postcards, has emerged as a fulsome arena for scholars, notes David Prochaska in Postcards: Ephemeral Histories of Modernity: "By investigating these ephemeral pieces of visual culture, we confront deep-seated prejudices about forms of representation, the way they function, and our manner of reconstructing their history."And despite Twitter and Instagram photos, they've not gone away; a survey a few years ago found upward of 2,500,000 sent annually in the United States.

As a medium that ruthlessly commodifies places, rendering exotic sites (or peoples) safe for consumption (the postcard rack itself being a twirling memorial to a place's loss of authenticity), it's not surprising that even the deadly blasts coming out of, say, Yucca Flats, Nev., could be aesthetically framed on a postcard and then acontextually woven into personal narratives; as John O'Brian notes in an introduction, the "Mirro-Krome reproduction of a spectacularized atomic explosion matches Betty's assurances to her sister that she and Bud and Emma are having a swell time."

But this was the work of the "atomic sublime," as Peter Hales calls it—not the "self-eradication and humility that had characterized Edmund Burke's sublime" or even the 19th-century American version linking "wild American nature to a divine covenant between God and American culture"—but a new "atomic aesthetic," forged by ultimate technological dominion over nature, animated equally by hope and fear. The aesthetic "converted holocaust to parlor show," terror into tourism.

Atomic Postcards: Radioactive Messages from the Cold War


John O'Brian and Jeremy Borsos

ISBN-10: 1841504319
ISBN-13: 978-1841504315

Atomic postcards played an important role in creating and disseminating a public image of nuclear power. Presenting small-scale images of test explosions, power plants, fallout shelters, and long-range missiles, the cards were produced for mass audiences in China, the United States, the Soviet Union, and Japan, and they link the multilayered geographies of Atomic Age nationalism and tourism. From the unfailingly cheery slogans—“Greetings from Los Alamos”—to blithe, handwritten notes and no-irony-intended “Pray for Peace” postmarks, these postcards mailed from the edge of danger nonetheless maintain the upbeat language of their medium.

With 150 reproductions of cards and handwritten messages dating from the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the end of the Cold War, Atomic Postcards offers a fascinating glimpse of a time when the end of the world seemed close at hand.

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