Crystal Bennes connects untold histories of nuclear weapons development in the US, and the women behind it

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Klara and the Bomb is a complex and layered photobook, brimming with overlapping stories, archive, documents and constellations of images

 

How many pockets of the past have hidden histories residing within them? For Edinburgh-based artist Crystal Bennes, this question began to form in her mind during the first year of her PhD. “I was researching into art, physics and feminism, and came across an interesting book chapter by the science historian Peter Galison called ‘Computer Simulations and the Trading Zone’ [in his book The Disunity of Science: Boundaries, Contexts, and Power]” she recalls. In the text, Galison surveys the history of nuclear weapons development in the US, and uses the metaphor of the ‘trading zone’ to explain how people from different disciplines came together to produce atomic bombs. “Two things in the chapter particularly interested me: one was the connecting thread he drew between the invention of modern computers and the invention of atomic weapons, and the second was how many of the physicists’ wives were heavily involved in atomic research.” 

It was in Galison’s text that Bennes first heard of Klara von Neumann, who later became the central figure for her new publication Klara and the Bomb, published this month with The Eriskay Connection. The wife of the famous Hungarian-American mathematician John von Neumann – who was involved in American military research in the 1940s and 50s – Klara was also one of the first computer programmers at the base. Her story stayed with Bennes, and she knew it was something she wanted to explore at some point. Fast forward to 2019, and a chance meeting with Carel Fransen of the Dutch publisher, The Eriskay Connection, set the project into motion.

Klara von Neumann, © Crystal Bennes courtesy Marina von Neumann Whitman
Marshall Islands sailing chart, Rebbelib type, c. 1920 © Library of Congress

Klara and the Bomb traces the connecting histories between the invention of modern computers and the development of nuclear weapons, and pays particular attention to the little-known narratives of the women who were involved. A vast and complex work, it tells several overlapping stories at once. “These include: Klara’s life and small role in atomic weapons research; the invention of the ENIAC computer which was used to model atomic weapons; the suppressed role of women in computation work connected to atomic weapons; the nuclear colonialism impact of atomic weapons testing in the Marshall Islands; and finally, a meta thread on photography as a military tool for atomic weapons research,” she explains. Together, these individual threads interweave and make up the greater story of militarism and colonialism, Bennes says. For instance, many of the weapons developed on computers built by these teams went on to be detonated in the Marshall Islands, where indigenous communities were forced to leave their homes. Every action had a reaction in the pursuit of power and progress.

 

“Books allow for a completely different kind of agency and engagement, and because this narrative is layered and dense, a book means that you can dip in and out, or spend a bit of time with it and return later.”

 

Chronologically sequenced over the course of Klara’s life, the edit of the book moves through a constellation of images, declassified papers and texts. “There are essentially four main components in the book: text, archival images, my photographs of documents and my fieldwork images,” Bennes says. Her source material comes from archive collections she visited online and in person, including the US National Archives and Records Administration and the Library of Congress in Washington DC. She made her own photographs in various places connected to the book’s different stories, including past homes of the von Neumanns, military sites, and universities such as UPenn (University of Pennsylvania), where some of the computers were made. 

When Supervising Women © Crystal Bennes.

Klara and the Bomb was conceived as a book project from the outset. “Books allow for a completely different kind of agency and engagement, and because this narrative is layered and dense, a book means that you can dip in and out, or spend a bit of time with it and return later,” Bennes says.

Leaning into the complexity of the subject, she and Fransen worked to provide readers with a variety of ways into the story, such as dividing the book into different sections and splitting up the text. “We ended up with alternating sections of what we called ‘poetic images’, which are full bleed colour on satin paper. These are sequenced and grouped as mini stories, each with their own theme and narrative. Interspersed with that we have text pages on an uncoated paper which have more ‘illustrative’ images in black and white.” It’s a design that “allows space for ambiguity,” she adds, while also providing a clear structure to follow. 

 

“Photographic image-making has been put into the service of some heinous behaviour.”

 

In the end, Bennes says, this book is about making connections between histories, people, places and modes of thinking that wouldn’t naturally be placed together. “Connections including the fact that the computers we use today almost certainly wouldn’t exist were it not for military interest and investment,” she says. She also wants people to reflect on the role of photography, because “photographic image-making has been put into the service of some heinous behaviour.”

And finally, she says, she wants people to realise just how many women were involved in developing, fabricating and operating these computers. “More crucially, though, I hope people realise that just because women were involved in this work, and that their work has been suppressed, it does not mean they should be celebrated as feminist heroes. The work these women did had serious and damaging consequences in the real world, and I cannot talk about them without talking about the appalling impact of their work.” Told through the prism of one woman’s life, Klara and the Bomb ultimately works to illuminate an eclipsed side of history – a side wilfully, tellingly absent from so many other versions.

Klara and the Bomb is published by The Eriskay Connection. You can find more info here

Klara and the Bomb © Crystal Bennes.
Joanna Cresswell

Joanna L. Cresswell is a writer and editor based in Brighton. She has written on photography and culture for over 40 international magazines and journals, and held positions as editor for organisations including The Photographers' Gallery, Unseen Amsterdam and Self Publish, Be Happy. She recently completed an MA in comparative literature and criticism at Goldsmiths College, University of London