'Noon in the Desert’, the photographic series by Annabel Elgar, examines nuclear weapons test sites from the 1950s, drawing on the test procedures for inspiration.
Noon in the Desert is taken from the opening line of William E Stafford’s poem, ‘At the Bomb Testing Site’, and is a series of photographs which explores the replica neighbourhoods, constructed at the nuclear weapons test sites in Nevada during the 1950’s in order to measure the effects of nuclear detonation. As a project, it emerged in response to a tourist postcard I came across of the Las Vegas casino, The Pioneer Club, in which a mushroom cloud can be seen looming over the Nevada desert in the distance. The two localities, known as ‘Doom Town’ and ‘Survival Town’, were designed to reflect a generic image of American post-war suburbia and were populated by a series of costumed mannequins, strategically placed in mock-up homes.
Vehicles, buildings and shelters were placed at various distances from ‘ground zero’, and cameras strategically located to capture the effects of the explosions. Filled with household goods and factory produced furniture, some of which was still in its packaging, displaying shop floor tags, the rooms embodied the American dream. Clothed mannequins were posed at the dinner table or gathered around the television.
Located sixty five miles north-west of Las Vegas, the Nevada test site was part of the United States’ nuclear weapons testing programme. A series of tests was carried out in 1955. Operation Teapot was the most extensive; the various tests within Teapot were named Wasp, Moth, Tesla, Turk, Hornet, Bee, ESS, Apple-1, Wasp Prime, HA, Post, MET, Apple-2 and Zucchini.
The atomic tests became tourist attractions, as day trippers, flocking to the Nevada desert with their specially purchased viewing glasses, picnicked under the shadow of the cloud, while Las Vegas hotels and casinos tapped into the burgeoning market, offering event tickets and memorabilia.
Following in the tradition of Frances Glessner Lee’s The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, I became interested in how the forensic use of the miniature subverts the innocence of the doll’s house aesthetic, in order to recreate complex histories. Taking found archival photographs of the two test site towns as my source, Noon in the Desert became a re-creation of their interior and exterior spaces, reworked in miniature form.
Modelled in clay on a diminutive scale, the handmade figures that appear in my photographs reflect the mannequin poses they are taken from. Presented as a series of isolated specimens, their faux-naif aesthetic mirrors the tableau of buildings and interiors that have been recreated as separate studies using wood, cork and felt.
What was central to the atomic bomb tests of the 1950’s was how they became emblematic of a nuclear optimism within the public consciousness. As special viewing stations were erected for the general public to witness their execution in the Nevada desert, ‘atomic’ toys and accessories flooded the market. It is within this capacity of a domesticated fetish for all things ‘atomic’, that the doll’s houses and exteriors I have created form part of this perverse and ironic history.
Annabel Elgar is a London-based photographic artist. She was one of eight nominees selected for the inaugural Prix Elysée in 2014, with her project Cheating the Moon, which was subsequently shown at the Musée de L’Elysée in Lausanne in Spring 2015. Elgar has an MA in Photography from the Royal College of Art and her work has featured widely in survey exhibitions throughout Europe and North America. This has included Theatres of the Real (FotoMuseum Antwerp); New Photography in Britain (Galleria Civica di Modena, Italy); as well as Contemporary Photography from north-west Europe (Fondazione Fotografia Modena, Italy). She has had two solo shows at the Wapping Project, London, solo and group shows at Metronom, Modena, Italy, and has exhibited at Zephyr Raum für Fotografie, Mannheim, Germany; Sweet Briar College, Virginia, USA (in a three person show with Gregory Crewdson and Justine Kurland); Galerie Polaris, Paris, France; Extra City, Antwerp, Belgium; in Photography is Magic at Aperture, New York, USA, curated by Charlotte Cotton and apexart, New York, USA amongst other venues. Elgar’s work has featured in Source Photographic Review (Source 69), the Belfast Photo Festival (selectors Brett Rogers and Alec Soth). Her work is featured in several public collections including the Musée de L’Elysée, Lausanne, Fondazione Fotografia Modena, Italy and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, USA.
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