Remembering Hiroshima in Photographs

The following is a guest post by Verna Curtis, Curator of Photography, Prints and Photographs Division, assisted by Eiichi Ito, Reference Specialist in the Asian Division, and Tomoko Steen, Reference Specialist in the Science, Technology and Business Division.

Verna Curtis looking at Hiroshima: Photograph, published by the Hiroshima Peace Committee. Photo by Kristi Finefield, 2015.

Verna Curtis looking at Hiroshima: Photograph, published by the Hiroshima Peace Committee. Photo by Kristi Finefield.

Two years ago, a small, old booklet caught my eye when it arrived in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress. Seven inches high, twelve pages in length, and bound with a yellow ribbon, it tells a powerful and wrenching story from the perspective of the Hiroshima Peace Committee in Japan. Through original photographs and words, the booklet conveys the aftermath of the first atom bomb, which was dropped on the city of Hiroshima on the morning of August 6, 1945.

Published in 1949, this unusual album preserves the story of the devastation of a city and its people and offers a plea for “No More Hiroshimas.” It is an early representative of a Japanese interest in peace that continues to influence the world today.

Opening to the center, we see the explosion and the devastation the bomb wrought. A famous photograph pasted near the bottom of the left page is the first image that the photojournalist Yoshito Matsushige (1910-2005) took a mile and a half from ground zero at 11:00 A.M., less than three hours after the bomb was dropped (see below). Matsushige found policemen applying cooking oil to horribly burned victims gathered near their station west of the Miyuki Bridge. At the far right stood 13-year-old Mitsuko Kochi with her back to him.

<em>Hiroshima: Photograph</em>, published by Hiroshima Peace Committee, featuring Yoshito Matsushige  photograph, lower left. Photo by Kristi Finefield.Hiroshima: Photograph by Hiroshima Peace Committee, featuring photograph by Yoshito Matsushige. Photo by Kristi Finefield, 2015.

Hiroshima: Photograph, published by Hiroshima Peace Committee, featuring Yoshito Matsushige photograph. Photo by Kristi Finefield.

Mayor Shinzo Hamai’s introduction tells us that, as chairman of the Hiroshima Peace Association, he designated August 6th as a day of remembrance. The mayor organized the first peace festival in 1947, two years after the bombing. Although not many people remained in Hiroshima, 2,500 people came.

Cover of Hiroshima: Photograph. Photo by Kristi Finefield.

Cover of Hiroshima: Photograph. Photo by Kristi Finefield.

General Douglas MacArthur, commander of Allied Forces in the Pacific, sent a message to the gathering in which he stated that dropping the bomb, signaled “a new meaning in deadliness and destruction and [was a] challenge to the reason and the logic and the purpose of man.” He declared, “The lesson of Hiroshima …. [is that] the harnessing of nature’s forces in furtherance of war’s destructiveness will progress until the means are at hand to exterminate the human race and destroy the material structure of the modern world,” and he warned that this lesson should never be ignored.

What the photographer Matsushige witnessed caused him to dedicate himself to peace activities. He eventually met Mitsuko Kochi, who was in his first photograph and had survived the bombing. Shortly before his death, the then 80-year-old woman and 92-year-old photographer sat together at a peace symposium.

More than 60 years later, photographers continue to look for ways to portray the impact of the bomb blast on survivors in Hiroshima. Contemporary artist elin o’Hara slavick recently donated a cyanotype photograph, made by placing deformed bottles she found at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in 2008 on sensitized paper and exposing them to the sun.

Four A-bombed Bottles from Hiroshima. Cyanotype by elin o'Hara slavick, 2008. By permission of the photographer.

Four A-bombed Bottles from Hiroshima. Cyanotype by elin o’Hara slavick, 2008. By permission of the photographer.

To use slavick’s words, they are “ghostly images of objects that survived the bombing, evoking those that vanished, and [are] much like the white shadows cast by incinerated people and bridge railings, ladders and plants at the time of the A-bomb.”

August 6, 2015, is the 70th anniversary of the American bombing of the city of Hiroshima, Japan, when the world first learned of the destructive capacity of an atomic bomb. This anniversary is an opportunity to see how both documentary and fine art photographs are engaged in remembrance.

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