Sunday, November 16, 2008

Hiroshima, serendipity, and the historical record

I've always been fascinated with the surprising ways in which paper-based records sometimes survive and come to light. Adam Harrison Levy has penned a compelling -- and hauntingly illustrated -- Design Observer piece (hat tip: Andrew Sullivan) about the complicated and serendipitous custodial history of photographs of Hiroshima produced by the Physical Damage Division of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey for the Pacific Theatre of the War.

The Strategic Bombing Survey was charged with assessing the destructive capacity of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Its Physical Damage Division consisted of approximately 150 "engineers, ordnance experts, interpreters, photographers and draftsmen" from all branches of the armed forces. In late October and November 1945, the Physical Damage Division worked in Hiroshima, "tracing blast paths, calibrating bomb damage and analyzing the physical destruction of the city." They also took photographs documenting the bomb's effects upon the city's built environment. Some of these images appeared in a 1946 War Department report, but many others were never published.

The Physical Damage Division photographs are in many respects unique; as Levy points out, the U.S. government censored the news media in Japan, and as a result images documenting the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are relatively scarce. However, some of them turned up in an odd place. About eight years ago, a diner owner in suburban Boston took his dog for a walk and noticed a pile of trash sitting in front of a neighbor's house. He stopped to sift through the junk and opened up a battered suitcase sitting amongst the other garbage. It contained 701 photographic prints documenting the destruction of Hiroshima.

Haunted by the images, the diner owner kept them and ultimately came into contact with Levy. Together, they retraced the complicated custodial history of these images, which had been created or collected by one of the men assigned to the Physical Damage Division. The story of how these photographs were twice discarded and twice recovered and finally ended up in the custody of the International Center of Photography is nothing short of amazing.

The photographs themselves, some of which supplement Levy's article, are deeply unsettling:
Although the images taken by the Physical Damage Division don’t depict the human suffering of the atomic bomb they do provide a vital function. They say: this is what we, mankind, are capable of unleashing upon each other. Like ruins, they refer back into time (this is what we have done, are capable of doing) while simultaneously warning of a future we have not yet encountered (they give substance to our terror of the use of another nuclear weapon).
It is possible that these photographs are duplicates and that their interment in a landfill would not have done irreparable damage to the documentary record. The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration holds photographic negatives and prints of at least some of the images taken by the Physical Damage Division; searching NARA's online catalog for "Physical Damage Division" will retrieve the appropriate catalog records. However, given that NARA has noted that there are gaps in the numbering scheme used to order the photographs, some of the images that Lt. Corsbie created or collected may well be unique.

However, I'm glad that the prints about which Levy writes have found a suitable home. NARA has yet to digitize its Physical Damage Division images (this is not a criticism -- NARA's resources are finite and its holdings are huge), and the existence of a duplicate set of these important images is a good thing.

At the same time, I'm a bit sad. In the decades to come, serendipitous finds of this sort are going to become increasingly rare: owing to the speed with which hardware and software become obsolete, it will likely be impossible to recover data from outmoded storage media tossed onto trash piles (or into recycling bins). Who knows what sort of imperceptible but very real losses the historical record will suffer as a result?

No comments: