from the series 11:02–Nagasaki / Beer Bottle After the Atomic Bomb Explosion, 1961, printed later
Shomei Tomatsu, Japanese, 1930–2012
Gelatin silver print
Image: 17 15/16 × 15 7/16 in. (45.6 × 39.2 cm) Sheet: 23 3/8 × 19 5/8 in. (59.4 × 49.9 cm)
The Allan Chasanoff Photographic Collection
Habits of Mind
- DEVELOP GRIT Develop endurance / grit / desire to rework ideas / open to a range of ideas and solutions/ possess self-discipline and self-confidence
Scaffolding and Questioning Strategies:
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
- Create abstract photographs of familiar objects
- Create an installation of the photographs in school
- Practice scaffolding information and incorporating new information through a guessing game
Connecting to the Work of Art
A quick glance at this photograph leaves the viewer with a startling impression. Set amidst interwoven clouds of black and white, a seemingly grotesque and twisted body emerges. The strange form possesses a surface like wrinkled skin, complete with intricate lines that branch out like capillaries and modeled curves that resemble the delicate shape of some small organ. While some viewers may immediately assume that this is the body of an animal, it is in fact the remains of a bottle—melted and utterly transformed by the blast of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan in 1945, the last year of World War II.
The complexity of this work comes in part from the artist’s ability to disassociate his subject from its context. The bottle’s likeness to a living form is not forced but encouraged. The careful lighting of the photograph helps to focus the viewer’s attention to the texture and contours of the bottle. It also allows the bottle to appear fleshy and gleam as if wet. Additionally, the top of the photograph is cropped just shy of the bottle’s mouth—a compositional choice which leaves the form incomplete and emphasizes the ambiguity of the bottle and the moral dilemma surrounding the dropping of the bomb.
The space behind the bottle is almost equally as vague. The background’s white forms lack the three-dimensional volume of the bottle but are not entirely flat either. Rough lines and collections of specks appear around the bottom of the photograph like cracks and scratches of damage on a mirror. Within the mist, there are only glimmers of shapes—perhaps the flash of an eye to the left of the bottle, the texture of fur to the right. The bottle seems to be situated within a space of fluctuating time. Although the glass is from the present, the blended organic forms hang like clouds, embodying memories of the lives taken by the bomb. It is an image of surreal, nearly apocalyptic destruction.
Although the shape of this bottle is still recognizable, many objects and structures that were within the range of the bomb’s blast were instantly reduced to rubble. Even more buildings, items, and bodies were severely damaged by the subsequent fire of the blast which spread across what remained of the city. Thousands were killed in the events of that day, and thousands more died in the following years from their physical injuries and radiation poisoning—bringing the death toll in Nagasaki to about 74,000. Like many other natives, Japanese photographer Tômatsu Shômei had long chosen not to confront this horrifying event, neither personally nor in his work. Tômatsu first picked up a camera in 1950 as a university economics student, but it was not until the 1960s that the artist began to focus his work on the effects of the atomic bomb and the American occupation of his homeland. Recognized as one of the premier photographers of post-war Japan, Tômatsu was influenced by Surrealism and the Western documentary tradition. He was also interested in the French New Wave film movement and was a member of the photography cooperative VIVO. His photographs bear witness to a period of rebuilding as well as the unsettling realities of Japan’s lingering physical and psychological trauma.
- What words would you use to describe this photograph?
- Describe the relationship of the object to the background.
- What does the object in the photograph remind you of? Describe what elements make this connection.
- While the photograph itself is smooth and shiny, how would you describe the range of textures in the composition?
- This photograph is tightly cropped so that viewers do not get much of a sense of the space that surrounds the object. How would this photograph be read differently if we could view more of the background? What if the background was not as ambiguous?
- How does the artist depict movement in the photograph?
- How would the mood of this photograph change if the background were a solid tone?
- How does the artist’s choice to shoot the composition in black and white film affect the tone?
- Would the tone of the work change if the object were shot in color film? Explain your answer.
- How does the ambiguity of the object add tension to this photograph?
- How does not knowing what the object is create uncertainty for the viewers? Do you think this was the artist’s intention? Why or why not?
- The object appears to be situated within a space of fluctuating time. Do you agree with this statement? Using elements from the photograph as evidence, explain your reasoning.
- While many people think the object is the body of an animal, it is in fact remains of a bottle—melted and utterly transformed by the blast of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan in 1945. How does this change your interpretation of the work of art?
- How does this photograph address the effects of the atomic bomb? How might seeing an artifact like this bottle affect a viewer’s thoughts about the American occupation of the artist’s homeland?
- Japan as a culture has been forced to deal with lingering physical and psychological trauma from the atomic bomb. Discuss how this photography reveals the sometimes painful realities of our history. Can you relate this to a similar time in the history of the United States?
- How does discussing a photograph such as this one, which addresses the after effect of war, allows others to understand the harsh realities of war?
Showing this photograph to your students will likely bring on a slew of guesses about what the object is. When discussing it together, ask students to use visual clues and slowly feed them information; this way, they can continually rework their ideas and interpretations. Most likely, the final connection will come when students learn the title of the artwork. Then, the students can grasp and discuss the significance of the object they’re looking at.
After enjoying this process of looking, learning, and reworking ideas with this photograph, students can create ambiguous photos of their own, and guide the rest of the school in puzzling through their works. Prompt the students to find an object that is familiar to them or important to our culture, and photograph it in a way that renders it new, strange, and hard to decipher. Students could do this in groups on a photo hunt, or individually.
After students have made and selected their abstract photographs, print and hang them in a shared space of your school. You can make a guessing game out of the photographs by providing space for other members of the school community to guess what each photograph depicts and record their guesses. As time goes on, students can hang additional clues next to their photos, allowing others to rework their ideas with each new piece of information.
Subject Matter Connection
In the art classroom, it is important for students to be able to describe what they see, make meaning in art as well as intuit meaning from others’ art, and be willing to change their direction if something is not going as planned. Through describing what they see and using leading questioning, students will be challenged to create meaning in a relatively abstract photograph. The real “ah ha moment” happens when the title of the photograph is revealed. The process of guessing the subject, defending their opinion, and ultimately being wrong will strengthen their skills in reworking ideas—all the while strengthening descriptive vocabulary.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.