THE IDEA that became this gallery was born at a weekend Tokyo houseparty. It was just about the time the Berlin Wall came down: the Japanese economic 'bubble' had passed its peak and the nation was just beginning its long slide into recession. None of us knew that then; a good time to party it was. The room that evening was abuzz with the excited happy chatter of the partygoers; none among them were paying much attention to the screen in one corner showing music videos in quick succession. The sound volume was quite low; the effect was BGV -- BackGround Video. Images flashed by, one after another, occasionally catching the eye for a moment but then lapsing again into a predictable pop-rhythm monotony. My attention drifted back to the company -- especially a few of the lovelier distaff guests, of course -- and with the added distractions of the food, drink, and the energetic overall ambience, in a few moments I had forgotten that boring little screen in the corner. The wine was good and the conversation engaging. Abruptly, from the farthest edge of my vision, the screen's images grabbed my eyeballs. Prancing freaky-haired rockers had been replaced by old black-and-white footage of Cold War-era air raid drills, the kind we had weekly when I was in the lower grades of elementary school. Bright-faced youngsters practiced 'duck and cover,' diving and then huddling beneath their schoolroom desks just as we did almost every Friday at 10:00 a.m. The video cut to an animated mascot, Bert the Turtle. He was reminding the kids -- just as he had in films shown in my own classes so many years ago -- of exactly what to do in case the bombers of Stalin & Co. were to appear overhead with the mission of obliterating the U.S.A., which in my own case meant West Los Angeles becoming Fireball-by-the-Sea. I stood there slipping back through decades for a moment as my memory of these near-forgotten words and images kicked in. I thought: "What happened to all that? Where did that era go? What happened to all the 'stuff' from those years?" I was silent and alone in the crowd. Everyone else was still merrily partying away. None of them gave the screen even a glance. 'Duck and cover' soon gave way to another round of rockers followed by a balding British balladeer. In seconds I was back into the flow of the party, but a germ had been planted.
I chewed on the thoughts the video had prompted. I gnawed. I chomped. I explored halls of dimmed memories that grew more complex as I began research in earnest. I drank in new information, some of which had originally been held secret during those arms-race years. I wrote out my ideas. I noted. I jotted. Sometimes I even mixed metaphors (horrors!), as what you read here so clearly illustrates.
The driving questions were these: what had happened to the technologies, the places, the relics of the Cold War and its nuclear standoff? What physically remained of the enormous sums paid to keep the nation safe from the frightening Red threat? Eventually my ideas took form enough that I could engineer a chance to go take a look; I managed to interest the editors of the Japanese newsweekly Shukan Bunshun in a photographic exploration of some of the iconic places and objects from those years still remaining within the continental United States. The timing was good, in that the provisions of the first U.S.- Soviet Union/Russia Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) were in the midst of being implemented and so some ICBM launch facilities, B-52 bombers, etc., were in the process of being destroyed as stipulated in the treaty's conditions. Those I thought would make good representative images.
I shot both black-and-white and color; a selection of the black-and-white images was used in the magazine piece. A few of them are included in the 'Black + White' gallery on this site. The color work has never been published. I have used some of those color images in narrated shows, but most that you see here are being shown for the first time. I am looking to put together a gallery show with selections from both the monochrome and the color work.
After completing the work at a number of sites in the U.S., I kept shooting potential aspects of the theme when I was working on topics or at locations that might have some relevance. I am still occasionally adding to the collection of images, and have included not only relics of he Cold War arms race and the age of MAD (the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction, a strategic premise of certain mutual suicide as the outcome of a nuclear war), but also some of that era's physical elements that have survived into the new world environment that followed it.
I approached the Russian Embassy in Tokyo about shooting at similar sites in Russia, and was planning to do the same in other once-Soviet states. It became quite apparent, however, that while the Russian Embassy was very interested and verbally supportive, working in that country would require a fairly large stock of unofficial-but-critical 'keys to the new Russia.' That translates as a large supply of fresh, crisp U.S. $100 bills (Боже мой!) to be dispensed with some elan to just-the-right-people in just-the-right-places. I was no stranger to that phenomenon, having worked in various kleptocratic African nations over the years. I didn't really expect it quite so much in the nation whose moral philosophy had formerly castigated exploitative individuality as the curse of mankind. Perhaps they were just in a discomfiting post-Marxist-Leninist phase, during which they were discovering the truth of the old saw that "under capitalism, we find that man exploits man; under communism, it was the reverse." At any rate, no publisher has yet shown much interest in following up on my overall concept if the condition of a black hole for C-notes is a part of the package.
As I worked making the images, and again as I worked adding them to this website, a line from Shelley's 'Ozymandias' kept echoing in my mind:
"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings.
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair."
What are those Ozymandian concrete, steel, and aluminum relics and ruins I saw? Monuments to an ultimately uncontrollable piece of our species' evolutionary heritage? What did we build? What did they, do they, and will they say about us? Are they even firmer proof that humankind's consistently salient technologies are always some species of weaponry?