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Feb 04, 2008

Work With Me, Baby

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by John Louis Lucaites

Anxiety over nuclear bombs is perhaps more pronounced today than anytime since the Cold War, marked by a persistent worry about unfriendly nations, renegade scientists, and terrorists of all stripes gaining access to enriched uranium and nuclear warheads. And yet, outside of a few editorial cartoons here and there, images of “the bomb” are missing in action.  For all the talk of nuclear terror, you might expect to see the image of the explosion at Nagasaki or any of the hydrogen bomb explosions obliterating Pacific atolls.  These were a staple of the Cold War era, but despite other similarities with the War on Terror, they are not to be seen.

At least that was the case until late last year when this image appeared on the front page of the NYT website as the anchor to a story about the debut of the 2007 Miami Beach Art Expo titled “Work With Me Baby.”

The photograph, created by fashion photographer (and music video director) Seb Janiak, clearly puts “the bomb” back in the public eye, but it does so in a manner that functions as an artistic challenge to the prevailing optic of the Cold War image of the bomb.  The Cold War visual relied upon a logic of absence (there was no destruction to be seen, just the explosion in all of its grandeur), the formal perfection of the “mushroom cloud” (the explosion cast in terms of abstract symmetry), and it operated under the complete control of a technologically sophisticated. military-industrial complex (only with such access could one get close enough to take such pictures, whether from 35,000 feet or in the Marshall Islands).

In place of the structured absence, the target of destruction is now evident as we witness the immolation of an actual city (Los Angeles). 

The formal perfection of the explosions is retained in some measure, but notice that the affect is different: the cool, richly saturated blue sky dotted with puffy white cumulous clouds stands in stark opposition to the cold war version.  Where before one saw either high contrast black-and-white photographs which underscored the abrupt and violent disruption of the force of the bomb or color photographs heavily overcast in dominating red and orange hues which signified the overwhelming heat of the blast, now we’re in the artificial colors of a tourism postcard.  Finally, the three explosions operate outside of the closed circuit of military control.  Indeed, these would appear to be tactical nukes, precisely the kind that we imagine being smuggled into our cities by terrorists.

The key point, of course, is that the Cold War nuclear optic with its formal perfection and modernist abstraction is no longer adequate (if it ever was) to the potential problems we face.  And yet those problems have not gone away for the absence of a compelling image (just as the problem of torture at Abu Ghraib was no less serious before photographs turned our attention to it).  And so what is the newer visual we are being offered and what are its implications?

The question for us has to be, what’s going on here? In one sense the image is a step forward as it challenges both the image culture of the Cold War and the apparent cultural amnesia that has lately erased images of the mushroom cloud from the public’s optical consciousness.  And yet, the alternative that it offers as a primary replacement seems to draw from the world of high fashion, a point underscored by the title of the article that the photograph anchors, “Work With Me, Baby.”

These are the words of avant garde fashion photographers working fast and furious to capture a soft porn aesthetic that can be published in magazines suitable for middle class consumption.  And so, one has to wonder, is this image one step closer to Walter Benjamin’s terrible prophecy that our “self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order?” Or is it a cautionary tale designed to warn us against our own cultural indifference?  After all, it is really unlikely that fashion models will really save us from ourselves, let alone from the atrocities likely to erupt from the technologies of war.

BAGnewsNotes contributer John Louis Lucaites is Professor of Rhetoric and Public Culture in the department of communication and culture at Indiana University. John, along with Robert Hariman, are co-authors of the newly released No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy, and also publish No Caption Needed.

(image: Seb Janiak/In Fashion '07 - Miami Beach Art Photo Expo.  “L.A. Atomic, 2005.”  via


I really liked both this picture and the commentary. Is the woman merely a witness, or is she detonating the bombs?

Just curious.

Wow. There is a lot going on here. First take: looks like the merger of the art world an fashion has been finalized at last, and fashion is clearly the majority shareholder.

Regardless of how this subject is pictorially presented I will hear:

Nor can we forget that these weapons as they were in fact used dramatized so mercilessly the inhumanity and evil of modern war. In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.

-Robert Oppenheimer Nov 25 1957

Raises connotative links to the Bennetton death row ad campaign some years back. Apparently there's a dark passageway in our psyches that eventually wends its way to at the mall.

I'm not an expert but this doesn't look like a terrorist attack with suitcase nukes. The extra suns in our blue skies over LA panorama are either reentry vehicles or more mushrooms about to bloom. From the apparent closeness of the bright light top right it looks like Missy's about to get an instant tan at the very least.

Very interesting picture. Also points at A Boy and His Dog. More apocalyptic fun.

Question: Where are those bombs coming from? Who dropped them, sent them into orbit, or sent them by missle? Which of our "enemies" has the technology to do this? Russia, of course.

The model definitely looks like she's pushed a plunger on an old fashioned detonator. Of course, as Black Dog Barking pointed out, they're more likely missiles.
I can't help imagining this picture being displayed for critique on America's Next Top Model...
Tyra says, "You wasted this perfectly dramatic moment by turning away from the photographer instead of showing us your beautiful face. Now the skin has melted from your skull and we're left with this horrific grin showing too many teeth. I'm sorry, you are no longer in the running to become...America's Next Top Model (TM)."

The air quality looks pretty good, so this is in the future. Maybe the missiles are from some more Saudi's - angry this time because we've stopped buying their oil.

As for her, her boots and expression say there is no way she was afraid of this outcome when she left the house.

This image has the dreamlike quality which may have inspired the artist after reading Bush's 2003 plan for growing smaller mushrooms.

Bush's surreal atomic contradictions reflect the logic of Dr. Strangelove's generation: He wants to curtail nuclear proliferation by proliferating nukes, wants to minimize the threat of nuclear war by making nuclear weapons more practical to use and seems to be enforcing his international consensus against weapons of mass destruction in part by implicitly threatening to nuke the uncooperative.

Regarding the, Work With Me, article and great picture.

To all,
From 1945 on....everyone has man-made radiation in their
DNA. We eat, drink and breath it each day. Invisible, the
perfect killer. Some say it will depopulate the earth.

It cost 2 billion in 1945 dollars to make 2 atom bombs dropped
on Japan. The aim of nuclear power plants is to make plutonium
239 for atom bombs. The trick was to make you pay for your
own doomsday!

Extortion, the big stick of political power, is what sovereign
countries want through nuclear power.

Dr. John Gofman says there is no safe dose of man-made ionizing
radiation. We should not add to it with new nuclear power plants.
Nuclear power is the most dangerous form of electricity. It is the
heat which makes steam that powers electric generators. Albert
Einstein once said, "Nuclear power is one hell of a way to boil

Liability is paid by the tax payer under the Price/Anderson Act.
Electric rate payers subsidize nuclear power and waste disposal.
There is big money and political power in nuclear waste, in killing
people, in a toxic regime. Nuclear power pollutes the environment
and will not stop global warming according to studies.

Dennis F. Nester
Phoenix, AZ

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