Radical Contact Prints

Camera Atomica, ed. John O’Brian, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Canada. Black Dog Publishing, London, (2014): 277-291.

In this essay radioactivity is positioned as the force that radicalises matter, transforming all that it comes into contact with, producing a kind of insurgent photographic medium that always operates in excess of vision. The radioactive particle is, after all, the sleeper cell par excellence. From atomic weapons testing to the nuclear accident what better agent than a medium directed towards image-capture to arrest this elusive and unseen enemy. Yet the radioactive comes into visibility when representation is no longer the objective of image-making and the making of the image itself becomes the event. This is ultimately the provocation of such radical contact prints, to bear material witness to processes whose political registers might otherwise secret themselves behind the surface-effects of things.

Exhibition review & excerpt

“In her catalog essay “Radical Contact Prints,” Susan Schuppli takes the idea of reversing the narrative even further. Just as we’ve been taking photographs of nuclear events since the beginning, those nuclear events have been “taking photographs” of us in return. Just as contact prints use photosensitive paper to turn exposed surfaces into images using sunlight (the most artistic version being Man Ray’s “rayographs”), radiation leaves a trace, however subtle, of whatever it strikes on the next nearest surface. “When two atomic bombs were detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, their searing heat rays transformed the material surfaces of these cities quite literally into photographic contact prints as ghostly photograms of damaged bodies and buildings were etched into concrete and stone,” Schuppli writes. “Exposed by the radical intensity of the blast, and without the mediation of a filmic negative, these ‘atomic shadows’ document life at the very moment of death. They too are a kind of radio-autograph — a spontaneous recording of an external event to which it can actively bear material witness.” If only we had been looking at those “atomic shadows” of the ground-level destruction rather than at the mushroom clouds rising above, perhaps the story of 20th and 21st century nuclear energy and weaponry would be much different.”—Bob Duggan