The Half-Life of History: The Atomic Bomb and Wendover Air Base, published by Radius Books, is a collection of photographs by Mark Klett and text by William L. Fox that explore Wendover Airbase, where in the 1940s the US Army Air Corps trained to drop atomic bombs from Boeing B-29 Superfortress aircraft. The book opens with photographs whose rough half-tone pattern indicate they are taken directly from historic archives. These photographs include a B-29 construction and dedication, a close-up of names written on "Fat Man," the atomic cloud over Nagasaki, and the ruins and survivors of the blasts. These images set the context for Klett's contemporary photographs in the book, where we receive a wide range of images that radiate out from Wendover, made possible by the events there. There are the remains of the airbase itself, the adjacent town of Wendover, surrounding areas, museum displays, and photographs of contemporary Japan. Following Klett's images is Fox's writing about the history of Wendover, World War II, and the process of making the photographs and writing the text.
Klett's photographs are a compelling exploration of Wendover. The images are varied and not quite straightforward documentation: there are close up still lifes of .50 caliber bullets, shot in Type 55 Polaroid; black & white close-ups of broken windows; colored rays of light shining through cracks and holes in the abandoned structures; landscapes; a watch that stopped at the moment of the bomb blast. The images are interspersed with each other, rather than sorted by chronology or typology. The mix of color and black & white is unexpected. Most concentrated bodies of photography work, both books and exhibitions, that I am familiar with stick to one or the other, as if mixing the two creates undesirable dissonance. I think that the mix of photography mediums here (color, b&w, Type 55 Polaroid) works well in telling the story of Wendover's decay. Klett appears to be more interested in using a variety of approaches to communicate his message than sticking to a given photography medium. In my first exploration of the book, I didn't know exactly what Wendover was, but it was clearly involved in dropping the atom bombs on Japan, and is in an advanced state of entropy.
Fox's essay fills in the specific details, functioning as both artist statement and history lesson. Like the photographs, it's not a linear progression, bouncing from theaters of war, to Klett and Fox's explorations, to explaining what was happening in Wendover itself, both in the past and present. This non-linear narrative is engaging and at times extremely moving.
The book itself is quite remarkable. When opened, the spine falls away from the signature bindings. This allows the open pages to lay flat, so when some of the large photographs are printed across the gutter, they can be seen clearly. A few fold-out pages reveal larger reproductions of multi-negative panoramas. There also appears to be three types of paper used: The historical photographs in the front are on one stock, Klett's images another, and Fox's writing appears on a third. The print quality of the photographs is excellent and the tactile quality of the paper is wonderful; it feels great as you turn the pages.
The stated purpose of The Half-Life of History is to neither condemn nor justify the atomic bombing of Hiroshima or Nagasaki, but to call attention to the death-by-neglect of Wendover Airbase, recognized as one of the most critically endangered historic sites in the United States. With the photographs in the book, Klett makes it clear that the base has become a ruin, and Fox makes a compelling argument that Wendover Airbase is just as critical to the world's understanding of the beginnings of the atomic age as the Atomic Bomb Dome, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the heart of Hiroshima. Those interested in the history of World War II, as well as those interested in photography, will find plenty of engaging content to consider.
David Ondrik has lived in Albuquerque since the late 1970s. He was introduced to photography in high school and quickly appropriated his father’s Canon A-1 so that he could pursue this exciting artistic medium. He received his BFA, with an emphasis in photography, from the University of New Mexico and has been involved in the medium ever since. Ondrik is also a National Teaching Board Certified high school art teacher.