Max Ernst Stockburger navigates the archive of nuclear warfare

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This article was printed in the Then & Now issue of British Journal of Photography magazine, available for purchase through the BJP Shop or delivered direct to you with an 1854 Subscription.

Tens of thousands of people perished after the nuclear attacks in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Yet the scientists who created the bombs, only consumed their effect through imagery of the mushroom cloud. Stockburger ruminates on this tension in his new work, The Missing Link.

On 06 August 1945, the first nuclear attack was inflicted by the US military in Hiroshima, instantly killing 80,000 people. Three days later, on 09 August, another bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, killing an additional 40,000 people. Tens of thousands more died of radiation and injuries in the weeks that followed, resulting in a death toll of over 200,000 people. Despite the realities of potential nuclear warfare today, its prospect somehow feels far away, rooted in the distant past, reserved for Cold War comic book narratives. While American museums discuss the Manhattan Project’s nuclear invention as a great scientific achievement, Japanese memorials focus on the bombing as a national tragedy. There’s a tension present in the global understanding of the attacks, as well as in our ability to comprehend exactly how nuclear science might affect us in the present moment.

For as long as he can remember, photographer Max Ernst Stockburger has been interested in the physical distance between the actors and events of technological advancement. He grew up in a small town in Bavaria, which also happened to be the home of a US army base. “I was always intrigued by this little microcosm right outside my front door,” he reflects. “I was a teenager when 9/11 happened, and my hometown immediately turned into what looked like a warzone, with US soldiers patrolling German soil.” In 2013, Stockburger started a classic documentary project about the now-defunct base, and the following year, he received a grant from the Japanese government to move to Hiroshima and make new work.

Hiroshima Schoolboys photographed by the United States Strategic Bombing Survey team, Hiroshima 1946 © Max Ernst Stockburger.
© Max Ernst Stockburger.

Despite landing in a novel geographic setting, Stockburger could not help but notice the historical presence of the US militarya familiar feeling. “I became interested in the atomic bomb as this ultimate form of technology that generated the ultimate imagethat universally-recognizable photograph of a mushroom cloud,” he says. “But it was weird; when I lived there, it was like I couldn’t deal with the subject matter properly.” To his surprise, when he returned to Germany after living in Japan for over a year, his perspective shifted. “When I got home, it was much easier for me to start researching,” he recalls. “I asked myself: if this is how I’m feeling, what was the situation like for the people who actually created the bomb? They were hundreds of thousands of miles away the entire time. The bomb itself is the only physical token that connects these peoplenone of the scientists went to Hiroshima.”

Stockburger initiated his research on the Internet, but soon realised that in order to uncover the greater visual history of the bombs, he needed to visit physical archives. He headed back to Japan, first to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, and then to other institutions in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Sifting through images by hand, trying to get a sense of its history, his efforts again came up short. “I started realising that because the US controlled Japan into the 1950s, they took everything they could get their hands on back to their own country. I decided to go to the National Archives in Washington, DC, and it was full of Japanese and Korean people who had to come to the US to research their own history.” In the US, Stockburger travelled to all of the main Manhattan Project archives, continuing his manual search undeterred.

Radiation burns on fingers, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Berkeley, California, date unknown © Max Ernst Stockburger.

The photographer spent hours each day in the archives, photographing any images he could find. “I started noticing things I hadn’t seen before, like the casual daily life of Americans, and how photography was used as both promotion and documentation,” he says. Stockburger’s own archive consists of over 60,000 photographsa testament to his obsessive collecting and documentation. “When I started working in the archives, I experienced the difficulty of navigating physical collections. You have to already know what you are looking for. It isn’t like the Internet’s hyperlinked connections and algorithms. I’m sure I missed plenty of photos, simply because I was never aware of exactly what I wanted.”

The connections excavated by Stockburger are both semantic and visual, guiding him towards his official title for the project: The Missing Link. “When you go into museums in Japan and the US, you find two very different narratives, and no one addresses how they belong together.” For an exhibition at Breda Photo’s 2020 edition, Stockburger whittled his collection down to three storyboard levelsor linksuntangled from his mass of photographs. Out of the 60,000 images, he used some 2000, bringing the three categories together in binders and interchangeable, shifting panels on the exhibition wall.

Children play on a link trainer in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, September 1945 © Max Ernst Stockburger.

Stockburger calls the first groupingthe top panel of his wall display”The Gadget,” the name of the Manhattan Project’s test bomb detonated in Los Alamos. This collection contains photographs of the bomb’s experimentation and scientific material. “It is very technical. You wouldn’t even realise they are working on the atomic bomb. While photos of the military personnel in other sections are glorified, the victims weren’t really photographed as humans. In most of these images, you only see a hand or body part documenting radiation poisoning.”

The second grouping, and middle set of panelling, is titled “Trinity,” which focuses on the relationship between individuals and technology in both the US and Japan. “These are images of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the laboratories where the people worked to create the bomb. It’s a strange gap that brings everything together.” Images of the iconic mushroom cloud are paired with photographs that work to shrink the geographical gap between the two main players. “I was struck by the visual similarities between the bomb’s testing ground in Los Alamos, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the devastation. The atomic bomb created these parallel places, in a way. I became fascinated with these meta-connections.”

Paul Tibbets, pilot of Enola Gay, waves before the atomic attack on Hiroshima, 06 August 1945 © Max Ernst Stockburger.

The final grouping, titled “Prometheus,” is a visual biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the American theoretical physicist and wartime head of the Los Alamos Laboratory, credited as “the father of the atomic bomb.” The images of Oppenheimer cannot be singularly categorised, demonstrating how nuclear science’s complex history is coloured by complex characters. “In the end, I think he really struggled with what he accomplished. But at the same time, he was incredibly vain, and saw this as his chance to become a famous scientist.”

The binders of images are a nod to physical archives, and to create fluency between individual photographs, Stockburger ordered them chronologically. “It’s how I created order without order,” he explains. “It was important to have a table in the middle of the installation where people could sit down and look at the story I created. The materials I used for the panels and frames were inspired by the aesthetic of the ‘40s and ‘50s. You can look through the binders and move the modules around, but they are heavy and difficult, demonstrating how the assembly of new historical narratives is a tricky endeavour.”

Mushroom cloud above Nagasaki, 09 August 1945 © Max Ernst Stockburger.

For Stockburger, The Missing Link is less about researching the history of nuclear warfare, and more about the artist’s greater fascination with the US as an allegory for the modern world. “I’m interested in the fact that, when people have the means to create something through technology, we can be sure that they will do so without seriously considering the consequences,” he reflects. “All technology involves the unthinkablea ripple effect too abstract to grasp in the moment.” The tension between casual everyday life and transformative technological creation is also related to our understanding of physical archives. “With digitisation and the prospect of AI searches, archives have the potential to become a physical Wikipedia, allowing us to jump from one image to the other, connected by contextual hyperlinks and keywords. What I’m doing on the wall is exactly that: looking at the past and future at the same time.”

Cat Lachowskyj

Cat Lachowskyj is a freelance writer, editor and researcher based in London. Prior to pursuing a career in writing, she trained as an archivist in Toronto, developing research on colonial photography albums at the Archive of Modern Conflict. She has completed residencies and fellowships at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Ryerson Image Centre and the Rijksmuseum, and her current research interests involve psychoanalytical approaches to photography and archives. Cat’s writing has appeared in many publications including Unseen Magazine, The British Journal of Photography, Foam Magazine and American Suburb X, and she has held editing roles at both Unseen Magazine and LensCulture.