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
- OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect
Observation and Slow Looking :
Art and the Scientific Method
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.
This Curriculum Connection also includes Chaïm Soutine, The Chicken, c.1926.
- Use works of art to practice using the scientific method.
- Plan and implement comparative and descriptive investigations by making observations, asking well-defined questions, and using appropriate equipment and technology.
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?
When following the Scientific Method, there really isn’t a perfect path to follow. Many times you have to go back to previous steps and continue to ask questions, do research, and restate a new hypothesis. Things change as you explore, probe, and delve into the unknown. Ambiguous works of art like Beer Bottle can help students get comfortable with unknowns, and with reformulating their opinions based on new information.
To begin, display Beer Bottle for your students and have them record their first impressions of the painting. (You can complete this activity with Chaim Soutine's The Chicken; try dividing the class in half and giving a different artwork to each half, or repeating the activity later with Shômei’s photo.) You can as students to write down what they think the artwork is depicting, what mood they think the artwork has, or descriptive words that could apply to the artwork.
Once students’ first impressions have been recorded, lead the class in a collaborative discussion about the artwork. Scaffold in information about the artist, his life, and the reasons the artwork was made. Discover the artworks slowly, using careful observation to unpack the complex and ambiguous information.
After the discussion, ask students to answer the same question they did before investigating the artwork together. Did the discovery of new information change their interpretations of the work? Did their first impressions, mood, or descriptions change?
Discuss how this process relates to the Scientific Method. How does a scientist react when they discover new information?
Subject Matter Connection
Teaching our students to be reflective about their impact as well as their own development is key to helping them become successful. It is when you make connections within that you really begin to develop a deeper sense of understanding.
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.