Don Levy, owner of the Deluxe Town Diner in Watertown, was out walking his dog one rainy night in 2000, when he came upon a pile of trash left on a Watertown curb. Amidst old lamps, cardboard boxes and matresses, he found a suitcase. Inside was a trove of old photos of bent stairways, ruined vehicles and crumbled buildings. He carried the collection home, where he examined it again.
“This time he shuffled through the contents with more care. After a few minutes he was convinced of what he had suspected out on the street. He was looking at something he had never seen before: the effects of the first use of the atomic bomb. The man was looking at Hiroshima,” Adam Harrison Levy (no relation), a documentary film producer and director, writes in the catalogue for “Hiroshima: Ground Zero 1945,” an exhibit at New York’s International Center of Photography, which bought the collection in 2006. [Pictured at top: Distorted steel-frame structure of Odamasa Store, Hiroshima, November 20, 1945.]
The photos were marked on the back “Hirosho” and with distances from ground zero, Levy tells us when reached by phone at his diner today. All together the some 700 photos seem to be the most comprehensive photographic record of the atomic attack. He says, “Realizing these photos were taken within a month after we bombed was very impressive.”
Levy, the filmmaker, first learned of the photos when he happened upon the catalog for the exhibit “Before and After,” which featured them at Roth Horowitz Gallery in New York, while he was working on a documentary about Hiroshima in 2003. (That exhibit also included stop-motion photos of 1950s government nuclear bomb tests by Harold Edgerton of MIT.) He tracked down Levy, the diner owner. The filmmaker’s catalog account of how he found more of the photos, and figured out where they came from, reads like a detective story, as well as a harrowing examination of the morality of war.
Researching who had lived at the address, lead the filmaker to Marc Levitt, who had apparently accidently discarded the photos Levy, the diner owner, found around 2000. Levitt, who still had some of the Hiroshima photos, seems to have acquired them when helping a woman clean out her home in the early ‘70s. And she had had them—and apparently accidentally discarded them as well—because her late father, Lt. Robert L. Corsbie, was part of the U.S. military Physical Damage team sent to examine Hiroshima shortly after its destruction.
Levy found her via an article about the photos he’d posted at the “Design Observer” website in 2008. When asked to contribute a catalog essay to the current exhibition, he checked the website again in 2010 and found this comment:
“Robert L. Corsbie was my grandfather. I have a picture of him in his naval uniform with his wife and daughter (my mother) on the wall in my dining room. His involvement in the testing of the bomb was based on his knowledge of engineering and architecture. His connection to this testing was not something he was proud of, and he kept the records of his involvement hidden away from his family. He went on to design railroads, bridges, and terminals which are now longstanding historical structures.
“It’s interesting to learn that his records have recently surfaced. He died (along with his wife and son) when his house [in Ossining, New York] burned down in 1967. How these photographs and the trunk were overlooked when the relics of the fire were sorted out I have no idea, but I’m glad to see that some of our personal history lives on.”
Through the granddaughter, Levy tracked down Crosbie’s daughter, Nancy Mason, who was born the day after the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941.
Pearl Harbor brought the United States directly into the fighting of World War II, which concluded not long after the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb used in warfare on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. Some 140,000 people were killed by the initial blast, and thousands more would die from radiation sickness. Relatively few photos survive to document the devastation because of U.S. censorship of information out of Hiroshima. As Levy reports, “The edict read, in part: ‘nothing shall be printed which might, directly or by inference, disturb public tranquility.’”
The prints on view at the International Center of Photography are the size of family snapshots, and have a dry, clinical, scientific tone. Their focus is on matter-of-factly recording and measuring twisted and collapsed buildings throughout the city. The primary concern seems to be the workings of the atomic device. The images are devoid of people, or signs of people—except for some shredded clothes [pictured above: charred boy's jacket found near Hiroshima City Hall, November 5, 1945] and, here and there, haunting shadows burned into pavement and walls. Shadows isn’t quite the right word. They are bare spots where people’s bodies shielded things behind them from being directly scorched by the blast. The photos become dramatic as they accumulate in our minds, recreating a city full of people, an unexpected blast in the sky, a wave of atomic death sweeping out over the buildings and people.
Crosbie arrived in Hiroshima on Oct. 8, 1945, and worked there through the end of that November as part of a classified U.S. survey of the devastated city. Levy reports that this Physical Damage Division team was composed of 150 entineers, ordinance experts, interpreters, photographers and draftsment, sent into the city to trace blast paths and measure bomb damage. They photographed and analyzed the destruction to understand the effects of the atomic bomb—and by examining the reinforced concrete structures that survived, perhaps figure out ways that the United States itself might survive future atomic attacks. Crosbie ended up working with U.S. government nuclear bomb testing in the ‘50s, researching shelters that might withstand nuclear blasts. And Levy suggests that a contributing factor in his death in the house fire may have been that his home was unusually sturdily constructed, which held in the fire and hampered regular firefighting techniques.
“I was too young to really know what he felt about it when he came home,” Crosbie’s daughter, Nancy Mason, told Levy, “but I know that he was traumatized by what he had seen. During the survey, he went through a bombed-out school in Hiroshima. That got to him, I know it. It transformed him.”
“Hiroshima, Ground Zero 1945,” International Center of Photography, 1133 Avenue of the Americas, New York, New York, May 20 to Aug. 28, 2011.
All photos reproduced here are by the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, gelatin silver prints, from the collection of the International Center of Photography.