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925 Silver Collection

After Hiroshima: Atomic-Bomb Influenced Photographic Work by a Lifelong Peace Activist By Liz Goldner

elin o'Hara slavick, “Fukushima Persimmon Tree Heavy with Contaminated Fruit,” 2019, solarized silver gelatin print. Courtesy of the artist.

Photographic artist elin o’Hara slavick has spent much of her adulthood investigating the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This passion evolved from her childhood experiences attending Hiroshima Day commemorations with her politically active parents. With images of the bomb’s devastation embedded in her consciousness, slavick finally visited Hiroshima in the summer of 2008 with her husband, who was on a Radiation Effects Research Foundation fellowship. While caring for her two children, ages 3 and 5, slavick spent many hours at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. The museum, storing and displaying over 90,000 A-bombed artifacts, is visited by hundreds of thousands of people each year.

elin o'Hara slavick, “Lone Blue Bottle,” 2023, light sensitive cyanotype print, ten minute exposure. Courtesy of the artist.

On slavick’s first visit to the museum, she was profoundly disturbed by the documentary films on view. This included footage of white and black shadows left on surfaces by the A-Bomb blast — of plants, objects and people — and a film of a little girl fanning the bombed ashes of her incinerated father in an effort to cool him. “I left weeping during that first visit. It took me several visits to work through the entire museum.” Slavick visited Hiroshima 10 times over the years, and the Peace Museum numerous times. Along with the A-Bombed artifacts, the museum houses extensive historical information. The dramatic lighting in darkened exhibition spaces “… feels like a reliquary, a haunted graveyard, conveying the weight of history and poison and loss. I’m on the constant verge of panic and in a state of utter despair when I’m in that museum.” It is a project of “unforgetting, witnessing, remembering and educating."

elin o'Hara slavick, “Bank Floor 3,” 2008, silver gelatin contact print of rubbing of A-bombed bank floor.
Courtesy of the artist.

During those many Hiroshima visits, slavick created cyanotypes of the A-Bombed artifacts from the Peace Museum. To construct those dystopian images — 16 of them recently exhibited at Santa Ana College’s downtown gallery in “After Hiroshima (Part 1)” — slavick works with Peace Museum staffer Mari Shimomura. The process begins with Shimomura providing printouts of the A-bombed objects, from which slavick chooses what interests her. Shimomura then brings the chosen objects out to the museum’s Sunshine Garden, usually around noon, for maximum sun/solar exposure. They carefully extract the artifacts from their archival paper wrapping and storage boxes and place them onto slavick's light-sensitive cyanotype paper for 10-minute exposures. Slavick puts the exposed papers into light-tight black plastic envelopes inside of a black fabric portfolio, and later rinses them with running water and hydrogen peroxide. The resulting impressions, imprints and images of the artifacts appear as though lingering radiation is illuminating them; they are white shadows in a sea of blue. “Tracing and touching the sites of survival, destruction, exposure and history, seem to capture an essence of the trauma, a residual radiation, a lingering energy of such a profound event,” slavick says.

The cyanotype images on display in Santa Ana included, to name a few, steel beam fragments from the A-Bombed Peace Dome; a triptych of a hair comb with one tooth missing; glass bottles melted into wavy, exploded forms; decimated bark from a Eucalyptus tree; and dead flowers.

elin o'Hara slavick, “Haiti” from the series “Bomb After Bomb: A Violent Cartography,” 2007, mixed media. Courtesy of the artist.

Slavick also creates silver gelatin contact prints of rubbings of A-bombed objects and surfaces. Eleven of these prints, resembling x-rays or luminous negatives, are exhibited at Santa Ana College’s main campus in “After Hiroshima (Part 2).” She constructs the rubbings by placing paper directly onto previously-exposed-to-radiation surfaces, rubbing a crayon over the paper to make negative imprints, and then contact printing them onto silver gelatin paper in her darkroom. The rubbings depict, among other things, a leaf from a Chinese Parasol Tree, and a Hackberry Tree, both having survived the bombing; glass shards lodged into a wooden bank wall from the bomb blast; and a basement door where a man survived the bombing. These have the appearance of finely wrought abstract paintings, with white impressions on black backgrounds. They are displayed in a dimly lit gallery with black painted walls, further heightening the effect.

elin o'Hara slavick, “After Hiroshima: Billboard, Peace Resource Center, Wilmington College, Ohio,” 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

The artist’s ambition is to create great art out of utter devastation, while acknowledging the catastrophic dangers of A-bombs and radioactivity. Slavick explores the clash between humanism and genocide, beauty and dystopia, creativity and slander. Working within conflict to reveal the truth is how the artist puts it. This fall slavick will contribute four A-bombed images to the Getty Foundation’s Pacific Standard Time Initiative in the exhibition, “Crossing Over: Art and Science at Caltech, 1920–2020.” The show will illustrate the complex interchange between science and the visual arts.

elin o'Hara slavick, “Two Leaves,” 2008, silver gelatin contact print of a rubbing of the front and back of one leaf from an A-bombed Chinese Parasol Tree in Hiroshima. Courtesy of the artist.

Art historian and critic James Elkins describes slavick’s Atomic Bomb images in her book, “After Hiroshima” (2013) as “shadows of shadows of shadows.” The first shadows are the death shadows seared into the ground by the original bomb blast; the second set of shadows are cast by the objects preserved in the Hiroshima Peace Museum; the third set comprises slavick’s photos. Slavick has been a voice of caution about the A-bomb for photography students at several universities, including Caltech. When she discusses her artifact images, many students are unaware of the weapon’s devastating effects, or that two bombs were dropped onto Japan in 1945. “They are genuinely shocked and suddenly acquire a big curiosity and worry about radiation. I try to explain that there are 30,000 nuclear weapons today, all of them 10 times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to impress upon them that this is not just about history, but it is about our present condition."

The devastated downtown 0f Hiroshima with the dome of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, photograph. Courtesy of the National Archives, College Park, MD.

Working with the A-bomb artifacts transforms slavick’s feelings of hopelessness into a creative process of reckoning and understanding. She produces images whose power lies in the contemplation of our violent history, the nuclear condition and the catastrophic effects of radiation.

Liz Goldner is an award-winning art writer based in Laguna Beach. She has contributed to the LA Times, LA Weekly, KCET Artbound, Artillery, AICA-USA Magazine, Orange County Register, Art Ltd. and several other print and online publications. She has written reviews for ArtScene and Visual Art Source since 2009. 
Liz Goldner’s Website
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