Matthew J.X. Doyle

黒い 火 (Black Fire)


On August 6th, 1945, the nuclear explosive codenamed “Little Boy” was dropped from the Enola Gay, a Boeing B-29 Superfortress.1 It fell for 44.4 seconds before barometric triggers activated its firing mechanism. At that moment, inside the tungsten carbide and steel shell, four silk bags of cordite charge shot an 86-pound bullet of subcritical uranium-238 at a 57.3-pound uranium spike target. A barrel installed inside the bomb was designed to allow the uranium bullet to reach its maximum speed of 984 feet per second before making contact. When it did, a nuclear chain reaction began. The bomb detonated directly over Hiroshima’s Shima Surgical Clinic at 8:15 AM (JST).

At nearby Hiroshima Castle, the Second General Army was just starting their morning exercises. The soldiers vaporized along with the castle. Mayor Senkichi Awaya died while eating breakfast with his son and granddaughter at the mayoral residence. 90% of Hiroshima’s doctors and nurses disappeared. At the hypocenter of the blast, the high temperatures of the explosion fused sand into glass trinitite. Wooden houses inside of the 4-mile blast radius burst into flame as a firestorm engulfed the city. The nuclear fireball rose 17,000 meters over the city in one second. As it cooled, the dust it displaced took on the flow pattern of a vortex ring, assuming the shape of a mushroom cloud. For an hour after the blast, caustic radioactive debris fell in sheets of black rain. The photographer Yoshito Matsushige rushed out with his camera to take pictures of the devastation, and later said he couldn’t photograph for very long: his tears clouded over the viewfinder. The day after the destruction of Hiroshima, U.S. President Harry Truman issued a statement: “[if the Japanese] do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.” The Emperor decided to endure further attacks, and did not surrender. Two days later Truman authorized the attack on Nagasaki.

The bomb’s firing mechanism was carefully set to trigger before it hit the ground. Detonating in the air ensured the blast a larger effective range, as well as maximum lethality. A massive amount of energy encompassing the entire electromagnetic spectrum was released into the air, creating wind that kicked up dust and flash-heating the air to millions of degrees. Charged particles from the center of the blast shot out, emitting penetrating radiation. Close to the explosion, the extremely high temperatures (300,000 degrees centigrade) vaporized objects and people. As the particles gained distance from the detonation point, they cooled. When lower-temperature thermal radiation comes into contact with an object, some of it is reflected, some absorbed, and the rest transmitted. If an object standing in relief to a wall reflects or absorbs most of the energy that it's subjected to, the object's shadow will be flash burned in negative on the surfaces behind it.

This is a photograph of one such thermal flash burn at Hiroshima. What appears to be the shadow of a wheel handle is projected against the side of an industrial building. At first glance, it appears that this shadow could be cast by the sun. This is a trick of perspective—the photographer has (perhaps inadvertently, in pursuit of the photogenic) positioned himself in such a way that the radiation shadow is at an oblique angle that would suggest sunlight. The wall behind it was bleached by the radiation, so the areas of the wall that were shielded by the handle look darker in comparison, creating a radiation shadow. It's difficult to locate the light source in the photograph—we cannot be sure whether the lighter exposed side of the wheel is reflecting the sun’s light, or whether it was bleached by the bomb’s radiation.

Shadows are cast by objects eclipsing the sun. The object could be a wheel on the side of a factory, a fence against a house, or a person sitting on some steps. As the sun moves across the sky through the course of the day, the position of an object’s shadow changes. The hourly-metered dance of an object’s shadow describes the solar passage, like a sun dial. Things become animated, dramatically vivified in this daily choreography: a shadow is long when the sun is setting, and at high noon the gunslingers cast none. If we stand still and watch, the subtlety of the shadow’s movement is almost indiscernible, like cloud formations. This attests to our own perception of change. I see a particularly photogenic shadow cast on the wall, a memorable image. As I engage again with my daily tasks, I forget its shape, and with it, the position of the sun. I look up again and see the sun has set. These sunlit intervals of attention and distraction are in relay with memory and forgetfulness, and they form my experience of the world as continuous—a world populated by objects in light and shadow.

Unlike shadows cast by the sun, the shadows at Hiroshima can never tell time, only their position in space relative to the 360º of the blast radius. Indeed, when the U.S. armed forces occupied Japan, surveyors utilized the radiation shadows to pinpoint exactly where the blast took place. They are images cast in timeless time. They testify to an instant that overpowered the sun, capturing a moment that resembles death without being death. Because their portrayal of violence is not explicit, these images are evocative: photogenic.

The photographic character of the flash burns themselves comes from their temporality, the instantaneity of their negative impression resembles the photographic apparatus. Unlike photography, the radiation shadows cannot be preserved through mechanical reproduction and proliferation. Furthermore, a photograph is of the world whereas these radiation flash burns (like most shadows) are in the world. The force that created them is not the violence of sadistic cruelty, of butchery that excavates the interior of a subject. It was the same radiating force that caused anonymous vaporization at the blast’s hypocenter, though its energy had been lowered by movement through air. As such, these flash burns possess a facture of mourning: the architecture bears a real relation of dissociative violence, while to our eyes the forms of the shadows become metaphors for disappearance.

Against the side of a wooden house, the outline of a ladder is charred, a suspended construction burnt in dark black. One can assume that it was resting against the house. Maybe someone was on top of the house at the moment of the detonation. There are stories about the tiles on the roofs of houses melting and bubbling. The top of the ladder fades to a lighter black than the bottom, where the lines waver and the black lines are thick, almost indistinguishable. To the right of the ladder, at the ground level, there is an indistinctly human shape, like a Rorschach blot. The shadows of this pair, a man and a ladder, will remain on these walls as abstractions, slowly fading away with exposure to wind and rain.

The Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall was one of the closest buildings to the blast site to survive. Everyone inside the building was killed instantly, yet the walls and Genbaku dome at the top remained. As reconstruction proceeded, the skeleton of the building was preserved and declared the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. In 1996, UNESCO declared it a world heritage monument. Only two countries expressed concern over the resolution. China had reservations in passing the motion, stating that the memorial would distract from the horrors of war perpetrated by the Japanese on the Chinese. The United States merely stated that UNESCO's decision demonstrated a “lack of historical perspective.”

When the remains of Auschwitz were declared a world heritage monument in 1979, there was no protest about historical context. In the same resolution, UNESCO also passed a motion to “restrict the inscription of other sites of a similar nature.” This double movement, allowing and restricting, demonstrates the sensitive ground upon which memorials to the Holocaust are constructed. Preserving the concentration camps, with their buildings testament to a sustained structural violence—the ceaseless production of an image of a race as less than human to fuel the Nazi agenda, hazards memorializing a technology of mass murder. This inhuman logic of representation creates conditions under which evil becomes systemic, unspeakable. Yet what remained after the liberation of the camps were the many individual stories of displacement, of heroism, cruelty and grace. It is undeniably important for these narratives that shaped communities and individuals to be re-presented. But, once fixed—in cinema, for example—these representations risk being viewed as pale and inaccurate, unable to encompass the scope and complexity of the systematic violence. Each attempt to condense into narrative and render an image of the Holocaust situates itself in the push and pull between representational fidelity and transgression.

By contrast, the moment of the detonation of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima presents an almost total absence of representational logic. Long before “Little Boy” fell from the Enola Gay, it was engineered to blindly destroy everything in its path in an instant. The shadows at Hiroshima testify to the automatism of this blinding force, and its indelible mark on the visible world. The moment of the detonation where 70,000 men, women, and children perished in seconds defies our idea of narrative time. In this absence of narrative and logic, the images cast in thermal shadow on the walls beckon us to to the presence of the imperceptible, the unseen: the absent, invisible victims of the disaster. The same blindness was inflicted upon Hiroshima, as the lightning flash of concentrated energy burned the retinas of those with their eyes open, bleaching the visual pigments and causing temporary blindness. Many exposed to the radiation contracted cataracts in the following years and months, causing the slow degeneration of their vision leading to total blindness.

I cannot faithfully translate this nightmare. I am eclipsed, for I too would have—have been—blinded. I can’t know, I may not know, just as I may not apologize. But I’m consoled, because I cannot forget what I don’t know, as I pray in silence for Hiroshima.

one star



—Katsue Kitasono, selection from Ou Une Solitude (1951), from Kusoi ki (Black Fire)

1I have relied heavily upon wikipedia, cross verified with other websites, for information about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the precise technical terminology and mechanism of “Little Boy,” nuclear weapons, and the effects of nuclear weapons. My gratitude to Chester Curme for consultation on the particulars of thermal radiation.