An Explosive Legacy
Rachel Fermi hunted down the photographic record of the Manhattan Project and the men behind it, including her grandfather, Enrico Fermi, known as “the father of the atomic bomb.”
By Bettijane Levine 10/01/2011
Rachel Fermi had no idea that the tattered shoebox full of old photos her aunt pulled out of a closet would lead to a major photography book and a slew of art gallery shows. But then Fermi has an unusual pedigree: Her grandfather was the renowned physicist Enrico Fermi, who became known as “the father of the atomic bomb.”
And one of those shoebox photos was the catalyst for Rachel Fermi’s ongoing odyssey into her family legacy that includes the month-long exhibition, Picturing the Bomb, which opens on Oct. 5 at Pasadena City College, where Fermi is an assistant professor of photography. The show, co-curated by Esther Samra, is part of the Pasadena Arts Council’s AxS Festival, exploring the nexus where arts and sciences intersect.
“I’d gone to visit my aunt in Chicago,” Fermi recalls, “and she pulled out this shoebox filled with old snapshots of babies and parties and family members. And there was one unlike all the others: It was a small red photo, not of a person but of a mushroom cloud.
Just a snapshot, but so powerful — such a stark contrast to everything else in that box — and my aunt didn’t know anything about it, or how it got to be there.”
Of course, Fermi knew instantly that it must have belonged to her grandfather, a key player in the World War II-era Manhattan Project, which led to the creation of the atomic bomb. “My aunt asked if I wanted the picture. I said yes.”
That simple gift led to a six-year odyssey during which Fermi and her good friend Samra tracked down photos taken at all three sites of the Manhattan Project, which was an urgent, top-secret war effort to develop the world’s first atomic bomb before the enemy did. The sites — Hanford, Washington; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; and Los Alamos, New Mexico — held a vast trove of unpublished images of the bombs being made, the test explosions and the daily lives of top physicists and the regular staff who all lived in the shadow of the most destructive force ever devised by humans. All the civilians had willingly put normal life on hold in order to enter the isolated, high-security confines of the project’s sites, where many workers didn’t even know what was being built. And those who did know were instructed never to utter a word about it, even to family members living there with them. The physicists used code words even when talking among themselves.
The photos Fermi and Samra uncovered led to the publication of Picturing the Bomb: Photographs from the Secret World of the Manhattan Project (Abrams, 1995). The current exhibition offers many of those photos juxtaposed to show the extreme contrast between everyday life on the project and the deadly destructive force which co-existed in the background.
The photos are “striking and almost disturbing images of everyday life in Los Alamos,” says AxS Festival Producer Aaron Slavin: “A guy in a Panama hat sitting next to an enormous bomb getting ready to go off,” for example.
Fermi started her atomic photo odyssey by bringing her aunt’s little snapshot with her to Los Alamos National Laboratories “to see if anyone there could tell me about it.” They could and they did. “The archivists at Los Alamos said it is one of the only existing color photos of the world’s first nuclear explosion, taken on July 16, 1945, near Alamagordo, New Mexico. It was a plutonium bomb, which they weren’t sure would work — the same bomb that was later dropped on Nagasaki.”
That wasn’t all the archivists shared. “They just kept showing me more and more photos, from all different parts of the Manhattan Project.” That’s when Fermi says she first realized that the making of nuclear bombs, and the first atomic explosions, had been photographed and archived and never examined since. Test explosions had been shot in dozens of different ways. “They had a whole group in the Manhattan Project who were charged with photographing the explosions from bunkers placed at different points, using everything from pinhole cameras to cameras that took a frame in milliseconds. I saw this amazing archive, including pictures of incredibly famous physicists, like Edward Teller, and their families.”
And, of course, there were more photos of her own paternal grandfather, Enrico Fermi, whom she had never met. One of the gods of modern physics, Fermi died at 53 in 1954, 10 years before she was born. “Of course I knew who he was, that he’d won a Nobel Prize,” she says. But growing up around England’s Cambridge University, where her father taught molecular biology, her family legacy seemed unremarkable. “In everyday life as a child, it wasn’t very often that people brought up my grandfather’s name or his work,” she says.
It was partly due to the photo her aunt gave her that Fermi connected with aspects of the grandfather she never knew, the man whose unique talents in both theoretical and experimental physics led to discoveries that helped shape history.
Enrico Fermi was born in 1901, in Rome, Italy. As a young physicist at the University of Rome, he did landmark research on the artificial radioactivity produced by neutrons and on nuclear reactions created by slow neutrons — work for which he was awarded the 1938 Nobel Prize in Physics. By then, he had a wife and two children — and Mussolini had crowned himself dictator of Italy and allied Italy with Hitler’s Germany.
It was an intolerable situation for the reportedly humble, peace-loving Fermi, who simply wanted to pursue his science — and whose wife, Laura, was especially endangered because she was Jewish. He devised a plan of escape, telling authorities that he was taking his family to Stockholm, Sweden, to accept the prestigious prize. He never returned. Fermi came instead to the U.S., where he embarked on an even more momentous aspect of his career. His work in physics at Columbia University and the University of Chicago, then as a leader of the Manhattan Project, helped birth the Atomic Age. And that led not just to bombs and submarines, but to all the nuclear power plants that now dot the planet.
Rachel Fermi, who is married and lives in Los Angeles, says her famous grandfather hasn’t personally impacted much of her life. “It’s a bit of a mixed bag, because the issues around nuclear power and nuclear energy are very complicated,” she says. “But when we were doing research for the book, people were very generous sharing their photos — I think because of who my grandfather was.”
She says the most memorable thing about growing up Fermi is that “everybody always expected me and my brother to be really good at physics. We weren’t.”
Picturing the Bomb runs from Oct. 5 through Nov. 12 at the Pasadena City College Art Gallery, 1570 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday; noon to 4 p.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Sunday. Admission is free. Visit axsfestival.org.