UMMA's "Aftermath: Landscapes of Devastation" ponders our relationship to disaster images


Peter Turnley, New York, 9-11

Peter Turnley's New York, 9-11-01, 2001, archival pigment print; University of Michigan Museum of Art; gift of David and Jennifer Kieselstein, 2016/2.504.

Aftermath: Landscapes of Devastation is a small, excellently curated photo exhibition at UMMA that addresses the relationship between disasters, their images, and viewers. Chronicling an immense range of historical disasters, the exhibit is comprised of shots from the beginning days of photography that have captured remnants of destruction.

Curated by Jennifer Friess, assistant curator of photography, and Sean Kramer, UMMA curatorial intern, the wall text for the exhibit reads: “Aftermath invites viewers to consider photography’s role in mediating the after effects of a crisis. … This exhibition features photographs from 150 of the medium’s history, although the images on view reference tragic circumstances spanning almost 2,000 years -- from ancient Pompeii to 9/11.” The images are arranged sequentially, corresponding to the “increasing amount of time elapsed between when an event occurred and when the photographer made the image, ranging from mere moments to almost two millennia.”

The first grouping of photographs features images that were taken immediately after the events. First, we see a photograph taken “just seconds after the detonation of the United States’ first hydrogen bomb test, and an aerial photograph by Margaret Bourke-White made minutes following a near-drowning on a beach.” The first photograph is a color image of the aftermath of an atomic bomb.

The signature mushroom-shaped cloud almost appears commonplace to us. At the time this image was made, however, the resulting mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb’s explosion was anything but common. Instead, the color image (a relatively uncommon process at the time) was created to promote the advances of the United States government during the early years of the Cold War.

Margaret Bourke-White, Beach Accident

Margaret Bourke-White's Beach Accident, Coney Island, New York; gelatin silver print on paper mounted on masonite, 1952, printed circa 1950s, 75 1/2 in x 60 in.; gift of Mr. and Mrs. Carl R. Withers.

Margaret Bourke-White, University of Michigan alumna, is known for her aerial photography and photographic journalism. Her large-scale photographic print Beach Accident, Coney Island, New York represents the moments after a near-drowning. From the bird’s-eye view of the photographer, we see the crowd spiraling out from the center of the accident, identified in the text displayed alongside the image: “Mary Eschner, who nearly drowned in the ocean minutes earlier.” This photograph was originally published in LIFE magazine, illustrating the continued trends of mass consumption of tragedy and disaster.

Next, we see the iconic Timothy O’Sullivan photograph A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The well-known, important art-historical photograph of dead Confederate soldiers on a battlefield is artfully arranged for visual impact.

The final images in this grouping are two photographs of the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11, 2001. These color images vividly recall a moment in time that I witnessed on television, one of many disasters witnessed in real-time in the 21st century. Friess suggests that “the still-raw image of bright blue sky and settling dust reminds the viewer of the recent occurrence of this tragic event.” And now, almost 17 years later, these images recall the event with an urgency and immediacy. This section represents a range of moments from American history in particular.

Next is a set of photographs that include landscapes and cities ravaged by war or natural disaster. Photographs in this group were often taken weeks or months after the events, which is evident in the photographs of Leonard Freed, Adolphe Braun, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Felice Beato. These are “rubble-filled landscapes serve as backdrops to the survivors who are forced to grapple with the physical and emotional effects of tragedy.” Henri Cartier-Bresson’s image World War II Liberation, Limousin, Haute-Vienne, Oradour-sur-Glane, France, 1944, for example, represents a scene of destruction after World War II, in which a man stands amidst the ruins, pointing into the distance. The subjects in these photographs appear in their devastated landscapes, observing and assessing the damage.

Patrick Nagatani, Japanese Carp

Patrick Nagatani's Japanese Children's Day Carp Banners, Paguate Village, Jackpile Mine Uranium Tailings, Laguna Pueblo Reservation, New Mexico; dye destruction print on paper, 1990, 16 1/8 in x 20 1/16 in.

Finally, the images that appear last in the gallery’s chronology are those described as “tempered by chronological distance,” emphasized in the show through the works of Arthur Rothstein, Richard Misrach, Patrick Nagatani, Giorgio Sommer, Elliot Erwitt, and Sally Mann. These photographs impact us “through desolate landscapes that are largely devoid of human beings.” These sites are often sites of tourism, like Pompeii. But, for the most part, these landscapes and former cityscapes are uninhabited.

Friess suggests that the images may even appear tranquil, despite representing a long-ago disaster such as drought, volcanic eruption, or human-wreaked destruction of the natural landscape. She also points out that in our media-saturated society, we are consistently bombarded  and “inundated with visual images of devastation from across the globe.” These photographs “alternately shock, fascinate, and numb us, engendering cultural and political effects and consequences that reverberate through time.”

Aftermath: Landscapes of Devastation asks us to evaluate our relationship to disaster and images of disaster, particularly in a time in which we see images of war and destruction so routinely.

Elizabeth Smith is an AADL staff member and is interested in art history and visual culture.

"Aftermath: Landscapes of Devastation" is on display at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, 525 S. State St., Ann Arbor, until May 27. Visit for gallrey hours and information on programs related to the exhibition.