Lecture Notes: Robert Del Tredici's book of the bomb | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Lecture Notes: Robert Del Tredici's book of the bomb 

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One of the first photographs in Robert Del Tredici's book At Work in the Fields of the Bomb shows a mustached young man standing on the steps of a federal building in Washington, D.C., holding a model of a hydrogen bomb. The man is Howard Morland, who achieved notoriety in 1979 when the federal government sued the Progressive to stop publication of his article on how to build a hydrogen bomb. In the ensuing trial, Morland showed that all the information he wanted to publish was already in the public record. After six months, the magazine published his article, "The H-Bomb Secret (To Know How Is to Ask Why)."

"The most difficult intellectual hurdle most people encounter in understanding nuclear weapons is to see them as physical devices rather than abstract expressions of good or evil," Morland wrote (in an excerpt from his article is reprinted in Del Tredici's book). "The human mind boggles at gadgets the size of surfboards that can knock down every building for miles around. But these are devices made by ordinary people in ordinary towns. The weapons are harder to believe than to understand."

For all the space nuclear weapons take up in the headlines and in unquiet dreams, few people know what they look like, where they are built, or who builds them. It was that imbalance that Howard Morland tried to correct a decade ago; two years ago Del Tredici attempted the same thing with the publication of At Work, a collection of photographs and text that documents the theory, production, and effects of the Bomb.

Del Tredici--an American living in Montreal, where he teaches at a small college--began researching the Bomb in the early 1980s, when the controversial deployment of Pershing II and cruise missiles in Western Europe made the potential for nuclear war a hot topic. "I thought, 'There must be bomb factories,' though I'd never seen one," he says. "And no one I knew ever had. At the back of my mind was Three Mile Island--the thought that if one small commercial reactor could turn a community inside out, what was it like in those communities where bombs have been built for 30 years?"

Del Tredici knew the effects of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, because he'd just finished a book about it entitled The People of Three Mile Island, which focused on the people who worked at or lived near the reactor. "My experiences there showed me that some people's lives had really been affected," he says, "but there were also people who said with a wave of the hand, 'This is a beautiful country. There's no problem.'"

His experiences with the cast of characters involved in the nuclear-weapons industry were also varied. For At Work, he photographed and interviewed Hiroshima victims, nuclear-weapons designers, weapons-plant public-relations personnel, uranium miners, atomic veterans, peace activists. The first half of the book consists of 106 black-and-white photographs; the second half includes interviews with the photo subjects, excerpts from Howard Morland's article, and a trove of other information about the nuclear-weapons industry. It's fascinating reading, even without the photographs.

Some of the interview subjects--such as Edward Teller, inventor of the hydrogen bomb and a "Star Wars" proponent--feel that those who worry about nuclear war are overreacting. Others--such as Theodore Taylor, a weapons designer who in a 1966 congressional hearing called nuclear weapons "the work of the devil"--are far more pessimistic. Many people involved in the production of nuclear weapons merely downplay the significance of their role. Paul Wagner, the public-relations manager at the Pantex weapons-assembly plant in Amarillo, Texas, maintains that seeing the brand-new warheads coming down the assembly line is "just like pickin' up a box of Silly Putty in a dime store. Hell, there's nothing to it. . . . There's no hazard to it that particularly affects me."

"This is called 'need to know,' which is a term borrowed from the military," says Del Tredici. "What it means is that if you don't have a great need to know where this part that you assemble goes, don't even ask. That's the overriding philosophy of the bomb factories and of the military. One man at the Savannah River plant--the public-relations officer--told me the plant had nothing to do with making bombs." The plant, in South Carolina, produces weapons-grade plutonium, but the bombs are assembled elsewhere.

If Del Tredici had relatively easy access to the weapons plants, he found that the government and companies involved in nuclear weaponry have been considerably more secretive in dealing with the victims of the industry. He photographed and interviewed Kay Gable, whose husband Don died of a brain tumor after working at the Rocky Flats weapons-production facility near Denver. After his death, officials at Los Alamos laboratory--where Gable had been going for treatment--claimed to have lost Gable's brain after the autopsy. Then officials at Rocky Flats claimed to have lost the pipe that had carried radioactive exhaust just above Gable's head at the plant. "It's a real balancing act," says Del Tredici. "America prides itself on being founded on the democratic process. But the nuclear reality is that lots of things are not open. It's not an iron curtain, though; it's a permeable curtain."

Del Tredici's straightforward documentary photographs don't let style get in the way of substance. John Smitherman, a Navy veteran who was exposed to fallout in the first postwar atomic-bomb tests, seems racked with pain in his photo; he died of a blockage of the lymph system associated with radiation exposure soon after Del Tredici photographed him. An official of the Federal Emergency Management Agency blandly describes civil-defense strategies that sound futile; with his deadpan explanatory expression, he is the quintessential bureaucrat. A photo taken in Lapland of a huge freezer filled with reindeer carcasses contaminated with radiation from the Chernobyl disaster appears with its unidentifiable piles of frozen meat like somebody's grim dream of a nuclear winter. The bomb factories--many of them photographed from the air--look like factories anywhere, underlining the fact that they are, as Morland wrote, "in ordinary towns."

It is Del Tredici's contribution to have created what he calls "a body of basic imagery to render visible the Bomb and all its works." The book espouses no explicit political agenda, but it does illustrate some of the damage nuclear weapons have done--even the ones that haven't been dropped.

Del Tredici will speak today, August 4, at a free noontime Hiroshima Day commemoration at Daley Plaza, Dearborn at Washington. He will also present a free slide show of photographs from At Work at 7:30 tonight at the Rhona Hoffman Gallery, 215 W. Superior. The show, which is sponsored by the Chicago chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, will be preceded by a reception benefiting PSR that begins at 5:30; tickets for the reception are $35, or $60 per couple. Call 663-1777 for more.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Del Tredici, Yoshito Mastushige.

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