On View> Hiroshima: Ground Zero 1945, an exhibition and a mystery

Hiroshima: Ground Zero 1945, International Center of Photography.

Hiroshima: Ground Zero 1945
International Center for Photography
1133 Ave. of the Americas at 43rd St.
Through August 28

An abandoned suitcase, a house fire, strange markings on old photographs. These were the key clues in a mystery that Adam Harrison Levy began to unravel almost ten years ago when researching a BBC documentary about the bombing of Hiroshima. Levy’s intriguing narrative now serves as the backdrop for the black-and-white photographs in Hiroshima: Ground Zero 1945, an exhibit running through August 28 at the International Center for Photography in New York. On July 20 at the Van Alen bookshop, Levy read from his essay in the exhibition catalogue while ICP curator Erin Barnett discussed her research for the show of 60 photographs, all drawn from an ICP collection of almost 700 images that once belonged to Robert L. Corsbie.

Hiroshima: Ground Zero 1945, International Center of Photography

Corsbie, a Columbia-trained architect, joined the army during World War II and was deployed to Japan in the fall of 1945 as a member of the Physical Damage Division, a group that meticulously mapped and documented a devastated Hiroshima post-atomic bomb for the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey. Due to restrictions imposed by President Truman, no photographs of the site were permitted outside of the army’s coverage. Now available for public viewing at the National Archives, these government documents remained classified through the early 1950s. But for twenty years after the war, the former Lieutenant Corsbie also had a cache of the photographs in his basement.

Following his return to the States, Corsbie continued to work for the government, drawing on lessons learned from Hiroshima—buildings that used reinforced concrete were some the only surviving structures—to help design fallout shelters in the United States. Corsbie even became a spokesperson for the Atomic Energy Commission, appearing in public service television spots in the era of “Duck and Cover.” In the late ’60s, Corsbie’s story takes a dramatic twist, with a house fire that ultimately led to his photographs ending up in a suitcase on a curb in Watertown, Massachusetts, awaiting trash pickup.

Hiroshima: Ground Zero 1945, International Center for Photography.

For the full account of the collection’s rediscovery and rescue in 2000, you’ll have to read Levy’s catalogue essay (an earlier version of which was published on Design Observer in 2008), and the accompanying essays by John W. Dower, David Monteyne, Philomena Mariani, and curator Erin Barnett. Barnett spent an intense session at the National Archives decoding notations on the Corsbie photos and plotting the locations of the buildings represented. She organized the exhibition around the idea of zones of impact, giving the exhibition its title “Ground Zero,” a term that appears for the first time in the 1946 report of the Strategic Bombing Survey.

The photographs themselves are unsettling in their unemotional treatment of scenes depicting unprecedented levels of destruction—contorted steel girders, an urban street rendered unrecognizable, a staircase slightly melted. Mark Levitt, a Watertown resident who come into possession of the photographs in the early ’70s following the Corsbie fire, inadvertently threw them out during a move in 2000. Soon after, a passerby discovered the suitcase of photos in a pile of trash on the street. Reunited with the photos by Levy, Levitt’s reaction to the images is captured in Levy’s essay: “We see death and disaster all over TV but these photographs are different, maybe because they are physical objects. They don’t represent the horror, exactly, because there are no bodies. They’re clinical. But the power of them is really intense.”

Hiroshima: Ground Zero 1945, Internation Center of Photography.

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