Wish You Were—Boom!
Postcards from the age of atomic tourism.
"Having a great time," reads the archetypical postcard. "Wish you were here." But what about when the "here" is the blasted, irradiated wastes of Frenchman's Flat, in the Nevada desert? Or the site of America's worst nuclear disaster? John O'Brian and Jeremy Borsos' new book, Atomic Postcards, fuses the almost inherently banal form of the canned tourist dispatch with the incipient peril, and nervously giddy promise, of the nuclear age. Collected within are two-sided curios spanning the vast range of the military-industrial complex—"radioactive messages from the Cold War," as the book promises. They depict everything from haunting afterimages of atomic incineration on the Nagasaki streets to achingly prosaic sales materials from atomic suppliers to a gauzy homage to the "first atomic research reactor in Israel," a concrete monolith jutting from the sand, looking at once futuristic and ancient. Taken as a whole, the postcards form a kind of de facto and largely cheery dissemination campaign for the wonder of atomic power (and weapons). And who's to mind if that sunny tropical beach is flecked with radionuclides?
There is something by turns comforting and disturbing in the fact that places like the Eniwetok Proving Ground—the Pacific atoll where tests like "Bravo" promised a thousand Hiroshimas—should have its own two-color lithograph postcard; and that the back of cards sent from places like the top-secret "City of the Atomic Bomb," Oak Ridge, Tenn., should have little more to announce than: "Plenty hot."
The postcard is a curious form. As historian Joe Moran notes, it "the epitome of what linguists call phatic communication: a message with no inherent content, sent for its own sake and simply saying, 'Hello, I'm here and you're there.' " In 19th-century England, it was viewed dimly by the upper classes. "They imagined that it would become all too easy for people to read other people's messages and private concerns," writes Frank Staff in The Picture Postcard and Its Origins, "and that it would become easy for people to indulge in public libel and defamation of character as a means of venting spite or malice."
Once the preserve of obsessive collectors—who fretted over such questions as how to classify a postcard that showed "a post-office in the foreground, a railway station which can just be glimpsed at the back, and a reasonable view of a tram travelling down the middle"—deltiology, or the study of postcards, has emerged as a fulsome arena for scholars, notes David Prochaska in Postcards: Ephemeral Histories of Modernity: "By investigating these ephemeral pieces of visual culture, we confront deep-seated prejudices about forms of representation, the way they function, and our manner of reconstructing their history."And despite Twitter and Instagram photos, they've not gone away; a survey a few years ago found upward of 2,500,000 sent annually in the United States.
As a medium that ruthlessly commodifies places, rendering exotic sites (or peoples) safe for consumption (the postcard rack itself being a twirling memorial to a place's loss of authenticity), it's not surprising that even the deadly blasts coming out of, say, Yucca Flats, Nev., could be aesthetically framed on a postcard and then acontextually woven into personal narratives; as John O'Brian notes in an introduction, the "Mirro-Krome reproduction of a spectacularized atomic explosion matches Betty's assurances to her sister that she and Bud and Emma are having a swell time."
But this was the work of the "atomic sublime," as Peter Hales calls it—not the "self-eradication and humility that had characterized Edmund Burke's sublime" or even the 19th-century American version linking "wild American nature to a divine covenant between God and American culture"—but a new "atomic aesthetic," forged by ultimate technological dominion over nature, animated equally by hope and fear. The aesthetic "converted holocaust to parlor show," terror into tourism.
Click here for a slide show of postcards from the nuclear age.
Tom Vanderbilt is author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, now available in paperback. He is contributing editor to Artforum, Print, and I.D.; contributing writer to Design Observer; and has written for many publications, including Wired, the Wilson Quarterly, the New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books. He blogs at howwedrive.com and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tomvanderbilt.