Abbey Hepner – The Light at the End of History: Reacting to Nuclear Impact

Review by Gerhard Clausing

In these pandemic times we are certainly being reminded that things we cannot see, such as viruses, can hurt us badly, and that our human tendency to ignore dangers we cannot visually ascertain can lead us astray. So it is with atomic energy and its flip-side, nuclear waste, some of which has a threatening afterlife that outlasts us all by what seems like zillions of years.

Abbey Hepner has spent more than a decade documenting nuclear strategies and outcomes, with special attention to ways of reaching the recipients (us) not only with facts, but also through a sublime transformation of these phenomena into appealing works of art that mimic harmlessness and yet are powerful messengers of prior as well as potential doom.

This book is divided into seven parts, each constituting a distinct area of concern. The first two deal with the effects of above-ground nuclear experiments that were permitted until 1963. Two of Hepner’s uncles were young ‘downwind’ casualties of the negative effect of these endeavors. We see aerial shots of nuclear experiment craters in Nevada and a gatefold list of every one of the 1040 nuclear bomb detonations in the US. We get an eerie feeling that these images are like those of cancerous growths. A second series presents images of animal bones from the southwestern US which the artist imprinted (by cyanotype process) with DNA information as well as with the dates of every one of these thousand+ explosions.

Storage locations of radioactive waste are seen as almost invisible scars and slight elevations marring the landscape, as are experimental and former labs and current nuclear plants that are oddly out of step with the scenes of nature that surround them. The composite reconstructions of the town of Uravan, Colorado, no longer in existence due to nuclear contamination, are fascinating. Particularly effective is Hepner’s technique of using uranium to create the prints showing some of the other sites: we see an older technique of a photographic process applied to show a seemingly fading presence of some nuclear stuff that will not go away and may haunt us for hundreds of years or longer. The subject is objectified and, in the process of depiction, is also forced to undergo a treatment with its own ingredient used in creating the prints. Furthermore, the use of uranium instead of silver in printing the images gives them the same macabre yellow-orangy color that the sky had after the Hiroshima detonation. The book concludes with inside views of a nuclear ‘Control Room,’ as well as a very cogent and insightful essay by Kirsten Pai Buick.

This photobook is full of facts, documentation, and art. It is a most impressive assembling of things we have guessed but not really explicitly known, and the sublimation of the gory truth into fine art makes us take notice. Not all the roads  that promise almighty dollars are only paved with gold: The yellow brick road may be more tainted than we had heretofore imagined.

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Gerhard Clausing, PBJ Associate Editor, is a photographer and author from Southern California.

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Abbey Hepner – The Light at the End of History: Reacting to Nuclear Impact

Photographer:  Abbey Hepner (born in Moscow, Idaho; lives in Troy, Illinois)

Publisher:  Daylight Books; © 2020, published August 2021

Essay:  Kirsten Pai Buick

Language:  English

Hardback, sewn; 164 pages, paginated, with 85 color images; maps by Scott White; 21 x 26 cm / 8.25 x 10.25 inches; printed and bound in Turkey by OFSET Yapimevi. ISBN 978-1-942084-97-6

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Articles and photographs published in the PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).

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