The 50th anniversary of America's victory in the Second World War and the nuclear holocaust it cost Japan are being variously commemorated. The horrors of war are ritually denounced once again. The sacrifice of brave young soldiers and wise, troubled leaders is praised. That is as it should be. Yet none of it cut quite so close to the bone for me as a traveling exhibition now on view at UC Riverside's California Museum of Photography, "Nagasaki Journey."
It presents for the first time together some 60 photographs taken in what was left of Nagasaki on Aug. 10, 1945, the morning after a nuclear device was dropped from an American B-29 bomber named Bock's Car. The photographer was a 28-year-old Japanese soldier, Yosuke Yamahata. His superiors dispatched him to the site to "photograph the situation so as to be as useful as possible for military propaganda." To Yamahata's undying credit he was so horrified by what he saw he never delivered the pictures.
What happened when the Nagasaki bomb detonated is well-known. About 75,000 people at the blast's hypocenter were killed instantly, pulverized to dust. As many more died later of burns and various forms of radiation sickness. Knowing all this in advance should reasonably act as an emotional buffer when encountering Yamahata's images.
It doesn't. A long shot that might act as the exhibition's frontispiece provides a panoramic view. It is so extensive the mind simply rejects the knowledge that this devastation could be anything but the result of some natural disaster, tornado or earthquake. Nothing stands but a few smokestacks, skeletal buildings or a torii gate. The sky is blurred, everything on the ground is charred so black it's difficult to distinguish between the burned stump of a telephone pole and an immolated corpse. The scene is so odd one has the impression of looking at a photographic negative. Occasionally a small flickering fire appears. Yamahata, who died of cancer in 1965 at the age of 48, called them "elf fires."
"It is perhaps unforgivable," he wrote later, "but in fact at the time I was completely calm and composed. In other words, perhaps it was just too much, too enormous to absorb."
People walk through the rubble. Their expressions appear normal. They don't gesture in grief or wail in pain. They just pace across the irradiated earth as if on a Sunday stroll through a city that overnight has somehow turned to a charnel house. They appear a bit puzzled and weary.
There is nothing sensational or salacious about Yamahata's pictures. If anything they are rather oblique, discreet. Such a subject requires no dramatization.
A woman in kimono and her infant child stand regarding the camera blank-faced. Each holds a rice ball. They cling to the food as if it were life itself and yet they do not eat of it, perhaps numbed to the notion that life is worth having.
A policeman makes his rounds examining the wounded. When the doctors came, many of their patients stiffened into corpses as they were treated.
A mother tries to suckle her infant. It does not respond and she gazes into the distance as if ashamed. Across the way a young girl of surpassing beauty emerges from an air-raid shelter smiling triumphantly. She thinks she has survived. Nearby is an image of a horse that stares in astonishment although dead.
Why does the horse evoke more sympathy than the humans? Why, upon realizing this, do the humans evoke as much sympathy as the horse? Because, it appears, both died in an equal state of innocence. Ordinary Japanese who survived the initial blasts were told only this was a "new-style" bomb. They literally did not know what hit them.
Looking at these photographs is nearly unbearable, yet once engaged one cannot turn away. Their effect is quite different from a videotape being shown. Based on Yamahata's pictures and the experience of a few survivors, it provides information and inspires sympathy but it doesn't engross in the same way. Still photographs are mute. Yamahata's are particularly subtle. They require the viewer to come to a personal understanding beyond the usual recriminations and rationales. Some may find that such horror is capable of enhancing one's reverence for both life and death.
The exhibition, curated by Christopher Beaver, previously appeared in San Francisco, New York and Nagasaki. It was organized by the Independent Documentary Group of San Francisco and comes with an indispensable catalogue.
* UCR/California Museum of Photography, 3824 Main St.; through Nov. 19, closed Monday and Tuesday, (909) 784-3686.