Review of O’Brian, The Bomb in the Wilderness

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John O’Brian, The Bomb in the Wilderness: Photography and the Nuclear Era in Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2020. 244 pgs. ISBN 9780774863889.

Reviewed by Robynne Mellor.

The Bomb in the Wilderness is an exploration of the relationship between photography and Canada’s nuclear program from the 1940s through the present. Among its chief arguments is that “photography is one of the primary ways, if not the primary way that nuclear episodes and activities are represented and remembered” (xiii). Throughout, O’Brian argues for the necessity of examining historical text and photography together to fully understand history. Within this argument, the book addresses a few main questions. It aims to illuminate the specific effect of nuclear photography in Canada and on the country’s understanding of itself as a nuclear player. It also explores the interaction between photography and nuclear risk perception, asking whether photography mitigates nuclear fears, exacerbates them, or does both.

Although O’Brian frames the book as an examination of Canada, his focus is much more transnational, and in particular draws a lot of its photography and narrative analysis from the United States and Japan. Because of this broad geographical scope, the Canadian content is occasionally thin. Moreover, those familiar with Canada’s nuclear record, or that of the US or Japan, may find the historical narrative somewhat introductory. This feature, however, also makes it accessible for classroom use. While “wilderness” appears in the book title, O’Brian notes that it is there to stand starkly beside the word “bomb” and highlight his argument that “Canada is not a terra nullius, a place where nothing happens, though it is often described that way” (xviii). The wilderness to which O’Brian refers is more metaphorical than physical, and scholars looking for an interweaving of environmental and nuclear history should note that while environmental themes occasionally appear—including succinct discussions of nuclear waste management, uranium mining, and the environmental movement—this book is predominantly about photography.

Women protesting against nuclear armaments for Canada, September 1961. Duncan Cameron photograph, Library and Archvies Canada, PA-209888
Women protesting against nuclear armaments for Canada, September 1961. Duncan Cameron photograph, Library and Archvies Canada, PA-209888

O’Brian’s approach to history guides the organization of the book. Focused predominantly on his area of analysis, he contends that history is not linear but rather “made up of discontinuous eruptions in which photography has often played a crucial mediating role” (156). He therefore organizes the book thematically as a series of case studies that liberally move through time and place. Similarly, his source base is wide and varied, and he freely jumps from one type of photograph to another. Side by side and paragraph to paragraph, O’Brian shifts from looking at photographs that range from artists’ works to military images to pictures drawn from civil defence materials and popular culture.

Each chapter is continuous in its link to the overarching questions O’Brian poses in the introduction, but very different in time, place, and subject matter. The first two chapters focus on the nuclear chain and examine photography that aimed to reveal the nuclear complex in all of its mundane aspects: O’Brian observes that “nuclear networks are not easily revealed by photography,” especially next to staggering photos of nuclear calamity (42). In particular, he uses Canadian photographer Robert Del Tredici’s work. He then moves to expose a hidden aspect of Canada’s nuclear complex through a close examination of the Chalk River nuclear research facility in Ontario and popular perceptions of risk linked to it. O’Brian continues his analysis of photography and risk perception on a broader scale in chapter 3, turning to civil defence. Through images, he underlines the juxtaposition between governing institutions’ awareness of the extreme risks associated with nuclear war and the frequent absurdity of public-facing civil defence messaging meant to placate the masses.

Chapters 4 and 5 look at the iconic atomic mushroom cloud. O’Brian’s selected photographs show the archetypal shape of smoky column and canopy on everything from blankets to cakes, each time loaded with meanings as disparate as warnings of nuclear holocaust to advertising opportunity. Amongst many American pictures of American mushroom clouds are advertisements for Inco Nickel and analyses of work by famous Canadian artist Douglas Copeland. O’Brian also examines the experiences of those who actually witnessed nuclear detonations, reminding readers that Canadian troops often participated in US nuclear testing, becoming victims of the same illnesses and negligence that affected many US troops. Testing and documenting nuclear weapons did not just create representations of nuclear risk, he conveys; these actions created much of the risk itself.

In the last section, O’Brian shows how photographs incited action and how nuclear risk spurred visual creativity. He delves into the relationship between photography and popular anti-nuclear demonstrations in Canada and by Canadians from the 1950s through the 1980s. He argues that “cameras record acts of violence and provide images that can mobilize public opinion; they are rightly seen as dangerous by those in power” (121). Both Greenpeace and the Voice of Women for Peace make appearances in this section, along with broader discussions about how Canadians responded to national nuclear policy. O’Brian next traces how artists, many of them Canadian, working in different media processed and communicated the ever-present risk of nuclear annihilation and the apprehension that accompanies it. Finally, the epilogue turns briefly to nuclear waste and its legacy, using a few photos to address the difficulty of portraying the risks of the nuclear chain through photography. As O’Brian notes at the beginning of the book, however, “photography is ill-suited for recording the slow destruction caused by radiation,” and so this section alludes to the shortcomings of the medium for capturing such a massive and yet largely invisible issue (11).

Aerial view of Uranium City, SK, c. 1958. Canadian Science and Technology Museum, CN Images of Canada collection, X-43954.

While O’Brian’s analysis is thorough, there is one main challenge that he sets for himself and then seems to sidestep. A stated purposes of the book is that “atomic flashpoints should not be emphasized at the expense of everyday activities of the nuclear industrial complex” (xviii). He asks if “photography [has] contributed (or not) to an understanding of Canada as a nuclear nation,” and then laments how, in terms of nuclear history, “historians have generally portrayed Canada as little more than a condiment on a sandwich” (9, 13). He argues that favoring certain images over others has reinforced the insignificance of Canada’s nuclear role. Yet throughout the book, the narrative and images often do just that, highlighting climactic events that occurred in other countries: American mushroom clouds, the Manhattan Project, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki all loom large. While Canada’s nuclear history is inherently international, O’Brian does not speak to what it means that many of the photographs he has selected to represent its nuclear era are not of nuclear activities that took place in Canada. Why, for example, more pictures of J. Robert Oppenheimer than of the mines at Port Radium, NWT that provided uranium for Oppenheimer’s project? Why focus on a 1965 poem that BC-based poet George Bowering wrote about Nevada instead of later anti-uranium mining protests in Bowering’s own Okanagan Valley (139)? Do both Bowering and O’Brian view Nevada as more representative of their nuclear message than a Canadian province?

Abandoned homes at Uranium City, SK, 2011. Courtesy of Flickr user Kristin Marie Enns-Kavanaugh.

O’Brian seeks to reinforce Canada’s role as an international nuclear player. He does not, however, engage the question of how and why photography of the Canadian nuclear complex placed alongside the sexier or more shocking pictures coming from elsewhere in the world might have contributed to Canada’s condiment status. He also does not reflect on what this means for the examples he has selected for this book. Nevertheless, it does provide a rich photographic glimpse into nuclear history and a compelling argument for the importance of using visual sources in historical analysis. Historians, of course, do not ignore visual materials entirely, but O’Brian’s book shows the necessity of looking at texts and images in tandem. He deftly illuminates how photography both reflected and affected Canada’s nuclear history.

For environmental historians, perhaps the best example of how this analysis can be used is O’Brian’s examination of Elliot Lake, a uranium-mining region north of Lake Huron in Ontario. Visiting Elliot Lake today, there is little visual indication of the environmental destruction that uranium production caused. As O’Brian notes, it is largely invisible to the camera lens. But by using Del Tredici’s photograph of uranium tailings from 1985, found both on the cover of the book and on page 64, O’Brian demonstrates how the landscape was once visibly marked with the harms of uranium production. The picture on the facing page is a work by artist and Serpent River First Nation member Bonnie Devine, showing how those who live with the effects of the nuclear chain perceive the invisible threat (65).

This examination proves that landscapes are not static; they are mutable and interpretations of them are manifold. O’Brian’s images remind the reader that it is important to have a sense of how the environment has changed over a period of study, or how those most intimate with a place view it in ways that may be different from the perspective of a visitor. Although engagement with environmental history is not O’Brian’s main focus, he highlights the importance of incorporating photographic analysis into the discipline. Comprehending visual interpretations and integrating them into environmental history narratives can help scholars bring materiality and depth to the human relationship with the environment, and make the physical world a more dynamic and active participant in the stories they tell.

Feature Image: Women protesting against nuclear armaments for Canada, September 1961. Duncan Cameron photograph, Library and Archives Canada, PA-209888
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Robynne Mellor

PhD Candidate at Georgetown University
I received my PhD from Georgetown University and am currently working as a historical consultant at Sunmount Consulting in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I study the intersection of environmental history and the Cold War, with a focus on uranium mining in the United States, Canada, and the Soviet Union.

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