Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Commemorating the 60th anniversary of the first nuclear test in Nevada, January 27, 1951.

 

Thank you, Mr. Avedon

COPYRIGHT CAROLE GALLAGHER 2011, all rights reserved.

Adapted from an essay in Filling the Hole in the Nuclear Future: Art and Popular Culture Respond to The Bomb, published by Lexington books in 2010; Edited by Robert Jacobs, Foreword by Tom Englehardt.   


Amargosa Valley, NV, 10 miles south of the Nevada Test Site. Copyright Carole Gallagher.



Thank you, Mr. Avedon.


Martin Luther King once remarked that there can be no great disappointment where there is no great love. And who would argue that for an artist, there is nothing deeper in feeling, or closer to love, than the urge to create that drives each day, every day?
It might be a bit peculiar to say that there was much to love while I lived downwind of the Nevada Test Site, the site of 128 atmospheric detonations of nuclear bombs during the Cold War. Here was one of the few places on earth that experienced true catastrophe, surrendering to radioactive fallout comparable to that of Chernobyl time and time again, yet never did my heart beat truer than when I lived for almost a decade in Utah. I had diverted the river of my life from the wily, ambitious canyons of Manhattan, fertile culture capital of the country, to the secret slickrock canyons of Moab, Cedar City, and other desert towns, living in the basement of a home owned by two polygamous widows in St. George. 
It was, to quote a great writer and a dissimilar situation somewhat askew, “the best of times and the worst of  times.”   
[My years in Utah were not so dramatically Dickensian, since the limitations and discomforts of acute poverty were cured by the landscape I saw before my eyes. There was a wealth of beauty in my life thanks to the various parts of Utah and the West where I photographed.  That beauty, access to those places, provided the best aesthetic opportunities and emotions of my life.  My encounters with certain emotionally dishonest, bigoted, or narrow-minded individuals, however, tempered what beauty I encountered with a sense of shock.]
Driven by a force I didn’t understand, while working on this book I was utterly transformed. A powerful motivation once again took hold of me much like that I had experienced as a child while cowering in the basement of the peaceful, cloistered monastery where I attended grammar school, during infamous “duck and cover” exercises in Bay Ridge, Borough of Brooklyn, New York City, a Ground Zero if there ever was one. The crucible of living amongst human beings who had witnessed the explosion of nuclear weapons, and were living with them and dying from them for most of their lives, held within it the transformational power of love and the urge to create something permanent to honor their suffering.
Such a drastic personal exodus from all I had known as a New Yorker by birth and by conviction had not exactly happened by accident. In 1981, in my early 30s, two phrases I came upon in my readings made a fortuitous connection that changed the direction of my life, and just in time: under President Ronald Reagan’s administration, a decade of unprecedented American greed and political duplicity was in its infancy. While studying a biography of the American photographer Dorothea Lange, who incidentally had photographed Mormon life in Utah in the 50s, I discovered she had always pinned to her darkroom door a thought by Francis Bacon:

The contemplation of things as they are, without error or confusion, without substitution or imposture, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention.*


By then I had been researching for many years the entity that President Eisenhower had warned could destroy our democracy, the military-industrial complex. I had also found recently declassified Atomic Energy Commission documents from the 1950s both riveting and deeply disturbing. In one “top secret” AEC memo, the people living downwind of the Nevada Test Site during the atmospheric atomic testing era were described as “a low-use segment of the population.”  The shock at such callous bigotry fused with the ideal of clear seeing expressed by Bacon and lived by Lange through her photographic work. It was that illuminating moment which brought me to Utah to research, investigate, contemplate and document the effects of exploding a thousand nuclear devices above and below the land of the Shoshone Nation, and the effect of those detonations on three groups of people: those who lived closest to the Test Site, as far north as South Dakota, the workers at the site, and the soldiers exposed to the Bomb at close range by military fiat, as an experiment to see what a soldier could endure on the atomic battlefield.
And so I surrendered to the Bomb, and dropped out of life as I had known it.


Warning sign at the entrance to the Nevada Test Site, copyright Carole Gallagher.

Dorothea Lange had much good advice for documentarians, all of which I followed, but my most useful adaptation was to wear what she called “the cloak of invisibility.” I, too, had hoped to become a blank slate upon which the stories and imagery could be written, but to do so it was necessary to lose my own needs and habits, particularly those deeply engraved upon my brain by years of living in the ruthlessly self-serving art world of New York. From that moment on, I clothed my life in “the cloak of invisibility” which had helped Lange become an instrument without ego. When doing field work, it is also best to realize how ignorant you are ... you have traveled to a new place because you want to learn something. It soon became apparent that in listening to and photographing the downwinders and other radiation survivors, it would be more respectful to stop thinking as an artist or photojournalist. Thus, I had hoped to avoid the pitfalls of exploitation while recording their oral histories and making portraits.
Of course, this insight worked against me in terms of professional success for the next decades, after American Ground Zero was published and the companion exhibition traveled the world, in ways I would never have guessed. My refusal to photograph anyone who had endured breast cancer by showing the scars of her mastectomy, as I was told over and over by photojournalists, was an indicator of my lack of courage or talent. I was aware of the aggressive, macho culture of journalism, but I had thought better of this, since devout Mormons always wear “garments,” a type of holy underclothing that is never completely removed even when bathing. I had many a laugh with some of the more straightforward Mormons in conversations about these ritual garments, how an inch of material was kept touching the skin while changing from soiled to clean garments, so that they were always modest in the eyes of God. It struck me as a poignant act of dedication and commitment to a life of the spirit, such as I had not seen since my monastic days.
Who was I to act disrespectfully in the face of such religious ritual?  I would photograph each person simply, in the places where they worked and lived, without artifice. There would be no room for artistic grandstanding in this documentary.
There was not quite so much respect, I found, in a few of the downwinders, and hence my great disappointment. There were at least two who understood that they could make a living by promoting themselves as advocates for downwinder issues on a national scale. In a rural state such as Utah, where adequate employment was scarce, particularly for those with barely a high school education, I could sense the desperation of those who were ill-suited to exhausting farm and ranch labor or construction work, the sole venues for work other than clerking robotically at the local K-Mart for a pittance of wages. 
In trying to work with two such advocates for downwinder issues, I found myself wasting a lot of emotion and time seeking to find people to interview through them. One activist thought that there should be a quid pro quo: she would reveal names of appropriate people to interview in return for my working gratis for her organization, full-time. By linking up with other advocacy groups in Washington and New York, she and one other advocate in a separate organization had managed to pull in piles of money by seeking funds from well-meaning foundations located too far away on the East and West coasts to comprehend the significant difference between fabrication and fact in activists’ funding proposals. These foundations sent no on-site investigators, and money flowed freely, often used not to advocate but to buy new cars and other items I thought unrelated to the serious downwind issues, like liquor and drugs. 

I called these two downwinders PVs: Professional Victims. They made quite a living from it, and after a few years became territorial and arrogant, thinking no one could speak about living downwind of a nuclear test site but them, particularly an "outsider" from New York. They also hated each other, a deep loathing based on competition for funds and fame, and soon I was unwittingly entangled in their trite drama, based on the maxim, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
In this environment of farce, I soon understood that there would be no networking possible with either of these venues, but I tried to maintain good relations nonetheless, speaking not a single bad word about them when foundations would ask me my thoughts about their work. “Straight from the grass roots,” I would say to foundation directors who sought my advice, “the only act in town,” though when an estimable and honest activist named Steve Erickson began working for a downwinders advocacy group I was very supportive of his efforts. In any and every case, I wanted to get myself off the hook by telling the truth but also keeping my shirt clean. Blaming the victims in any way would have been bad form. I received no such courtesy from them, however, when tables were turned, yet I lived with it, peeved but hanging on to discretion, silence at all costs, while lying silently on their exquisite beds of competitive nails.
My association with some downwinders was problematic from the outset, particularly those who expected to speak for everyone exposed to the nuclear tests. Despite the battering of my idealistic naïveté about these matters, I eventually found many people to interview thanks to the lawyers who were representing thousands of downwinders, atomic veterans, and test site workers. These were believable people, many with credible documentation. Each person I interviewed told me of a dozen more with the same health problems, the same work history, or the same service on the atomic battlefield, and so I felt no need to rely on the fraudulent PVs any longer to get work done.
This didn’t mean I wasn’t observing them closely for many years, even though they knew I had their number. Hence I may tell you my best story of the twisted, if laughable, way that the art world, from afar, and these PVs, up close and personal, helped me to take the most beautiful portrait in my book, an improbable photograph and the one that I love the most.
One year into my Utah sojourn, I hitched a ride with PV#1 from Cedar City to Salt Lake City, in her spanking new car, to attend a meeting of the “board of directors” of her tiny, tax-exempt organization, hoping to make some work connections. Years previously, I had seen PV#1 on a Phil Donahue show concerning the downwinders, and she spoke of having thyroid disease from the fallout from atomic tests as well as the death of her brother from pancreatic cancer, another radiogenic illness, when he was a very young man. She was, and had been for some years, morbidly obese, perhaps 350 pounds or more, which she attributed to the thyroid disease slowing down her metabolism.
What PV didn’t know was that I had suffered thyroid disease as a child, 1962-66, beginning in the year when the last of the atmospheric bombs were tested at least once a week, until the years after the Partial Test Ban Treaty, when tests went underground but were still releasing substantial radiation downwind, even as far as the agricultural areas of New York state where our milk was produced. I knew there was medication and treatment for hypothyroidism, just a daily dose of Thyroxin to mimic the thyroid hormone that the organ itself had stopped producing. Hypothyroidism can create serious weight gain and also clinical depression, and in some cases there is also severe, burning body pain in muscles and joints that makes exercise unlikely. When I looked at PV#1, I tended to give her the benefit of the doubt, “believing the best of people until one learns otherwise,” as my beloved avatar Charles Kuralt would say on his cross-country interviewing trips. But why would she not have gone to a doctor, and taken Thyroxin to return her life to normal?  My thyroid illness had changed my life for the better: to lose the weight I started cycling, running, and hoops. How much more pleasant it would be to run the line of multi-colored mesas in southern Utah for daily exercise! But some downwinders would prefer to be victims of the bomb, not survivors. I learned this all too often in the decade I spent downwind: there was political capital to be earned by these self-styled victims, particularly by the activists, and emotional and financial capital as well.
I said nothing to her about my own thyroid disease. It’s always better to listen, not to contaminate personal truths with outside influence from one’s own biography. We stopped in Delta, Utah, preferring to explore the back roads rather than take the interstate, because, she explained, there was a cheese factory there, and she wanted to buy some gifts for her board members. The aroma of the factory was sickening, perceptible miles away. Once we parked, I stayed in the car to make some notes about the landscape, the factory being truly in the middle of nowhere. Out she waddled from the factory store with a five-pound bag of “cheese curd,” an orange mass of what looked like predigested lumps, which she plopped between us in the car. I opened my window, settled in with my notebook and pen to begin more of my information pursuit about her, her brother, the family, and we took off for Salt Lake City, still at least three stinky hours away.
Somehow I forgot to mention that I had actually seen her on the Phil Donahue program, but I asked her about her own health, and she revealed, once again, that she had thyroid disease, like so many other downwinders, particularly because she just could not lose any weight. Expressionless, I asked who were the local doctors who had diagnosed thyroid problems locally in Cedar City and St. George, and though she could not name one in particular, she did mention that there were a few federally funded cancers studies at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City that had been tracking both thyroid disease and leukemia since the 50s. 

(In 2007, a scientist working with Dr. Joseph Lyon, director of these studies, would write in an email to a survivor of thyroid cancer that he finally had come to a point of conscience, and revealed that these studies were fraudulent, that the statistics were manipulated for the decades that the studies had been funded. Thus many millions of taxpayer dollars had been wasted on more Big Lies, many thyroid disease patients dying in the process because although they were examined and interrogated, they were rarely given medical treatment. The scientists only wished to observe “the natural progression” of exposure to radioactive iodine from these atmospheric atomic bomb detonations.)

As PV#1 and I talked, the five pound bag of cheese curd was quickly disappearing, though I had only managed to eat a few morsels out of politeness at her urging. I asked her who had diagnosed her thyroid disease, had she any nodules, or cancer, God forbid? 
PV replied that she had never seen a doctor about it, not one, ever.
Despite “the cloak of invisibility,” I was only 34 and had still not earned many stripes when it came to keeping a blank stare in the face of absurdity. Nor could I keep my mouth shut at this point, either. I asked how she had the courage to state on national television that she had thyroid disease from bomb exposure when she had never been diagnosed by a doctor. I had even remembered her stroking her throat lasciviously as she described her thyroid problems to the quite handsome Phil Donahue. She turned sullen, so I looked away, and through the windshield I caught sight of my very first magpie, a western bird of the corvid family, majestic in its deep blue and bright white colors with a very long tail, notable in its habits for stealing the eggs out of other birds’ nests and eating them. I had the good sense to keep my cackling silent, the irony of it all, and PV was silent for a while too. She knew she had made a mistake and was working on it, red-faced, chewing on the remaining curds.
We toured through a very small town south of Delta, once the Mormon capitol named Deseret, full of modest homes built of typically orange brick from local clay. I learned that the University of Utah was also doing a study on these bricks to judge how much radioactive decay they could demonstrate. I looked past one of these homes to see a catalpa tree in the yard, unusual in such a desert environment; its branches were heavily laden with dark, sleeping birds. Trusty binoculars in hand, I jumped out of the car to identify them. Heads tucked under their wings, crowded into this one tree, were hundreds of nighthawks, members of the nightjar clan, birds that stalk their prey only under cover of night. I was delighted. By the time I got back to the car, the bag of cheese curd was close to empty, and we had only, I guessed, backtracked 15 miles from the cheese factory to Deseret.
“There’s another photographer from New York here in Utah, and he’s doing a book about downwinders too,” PV#1 remarked snidely as I shut the car door. I felt my most deep, raw emotions finally being manipulated. She was grinning like a Cheshire Cat. My heart sank. I’m not a person who ever enjoyed the competitive, beat-‘em-down journalistic races to the finish, perhaps one good reason I’m a documentarian and not a photojournalist ... I need the gift of time to research a story in depth. Neither was it in my nature to kneecap the competition to break a story, perhaps the reason I had always chosen topics which others would be unlikely to have the time and fortitude to cover.
But now, apparently, after some years of working on my research and this book, I was about to enter a race with the type of competitor for whom I was totally unprepared, a rich and very famous one. The irony of PV’s consumption of five pounds of cheese in less than an hour was in direct contrast to my own experience in previous weeks, being hospitalized for the effects of starvation, blood pressure sinking to 60/40, thus causing frequent grand mal seizures from lack of blood to the brain. And I had recently relocated to Cedar City from St. George because the polygamists had asked me to leave. After being visited and surveyed by the local Mormon bishop at the request of my polygamous landlords, I was deemed less than righteous. I was “working against the government,” Federal agencies such as the Atomic Energy Commission  being considered by Mormons to be “divinely enlightened,” much as our Constitution is “divinely inspired,” and so I was evicted forthwith. Despite my tears and questions, I was told, “Don’t worry, sweetie, you’ll get your book done.”  I had read enough Mormon history to remember how many towns and communities in the East and Midwest had evicted LDS settlers because of their odd beliefs, including polygamy. Now the tables were turned. The widows were intransigent though kindly ... but they had a look of fear in their eyes. Clearly, their instructions had come from “on high,” in this case, the ward bishop who had inspected me and found me morally deficient.
For many months after moving an hour north to Cedar City, I had been surviving on just one bowl of Total a day, with water not milk, having so little money to buy film and gas that I usually walked to my interviews, carrying all my heavy photo equipment and tape recorder, no matter how far away they lived in town. There was just no extra money for the frivolity of personal sustenance. And in order to keep myself from succumbing to depression, which was keeping me from sleeping for weeks on end, I was also running a few miles a day into the Cedar Valley to a local ranch to breathe in the distinctive aroma of their horses and their colts, the perfume of the sage, in the hope of a brief reprieve from my mood via endorphins and the beauty of these new equine lives.
In a fit of gallows humor, I noted in my research that Mormons were obliged to keep a year’s worth of food in their pantries, to prepare their large families to withstand an upcoming, and much hoped for, Armageddon, when proof of their faith and righteousness could be witnessed by all the world. I was surrounded by Chosen People who were darned certain to be Raptured into heaven. Clearly I would remain forever as a green-gray heap of sinful misery on the crust of the earth when the End Times came. All of this was very disorienting, given that I had been raised as an American to work hard, play by the rules, and succeed in whatever endeavor would be my bliss, even though I was female. That was The New York Way of Life. 
I wasn’t sure why the Chosen People disliked me so much, but learned later that I wasn’t anything special as an "outsider" when I learned the history of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, which occurred on September 11, 1857 quite close to where I was living. Modern life had blessed me; Utah now allegedly observed modern law with an old-fashioned twist, as I would find when dragged into court in Salt Lake City in 2008 under a “long arm of Utah law” statute ... for “stalking” a downwinder hundreds of miles away from my home. This stalking slander was her legal contrivance to keep at bay my plagiarism and defamation lawsuit against her. She had written a play, based without attribution or permission on my copyrighted book, “American Ground Zero,” with my persona, a character in it, played with the grace of a Mafia moll in The Sopranos … despite my begging her not to do so. My begging was reinvented as stalking by her lawyer … much the same tactic used at Mountain Meadows, that the emigrants passing through were intent on killing the local Mormons and stealing their land, and should thus be massacred, women, children, all.
(A film based on historical research of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, “September Dawn” (2007) starring Jon Voight, with Terence Stamp as Brigham Young, is highly recommended for its realistic revelation of hardships endured by Pioneers who passed through Utah on the way to California.)



Here I was, living downwind of the Nevada Test Site, where 128 nuclear bombs were exploded in the cool morning air, many detonations rendering fallout downwind comparable to Chernobyl, but 25 years later these gentle, faithful people were still awaiting Armageddon?  I thought this through. We drove out of Deseret slowly down the main street at 20 miles per hour, the limit for the town.
“Who is this photographer? Do you know?” I asked.
“Richard Avedon,” she replied. She pronounced it “Av-ee-don” with a laughable French inflection.
Alrighty, then, I knew I was finished. Project over. Go home.

Money, and thus class status, was key. It always is. As Robert Adams writes in “Why People Photograph”
... Money is important. It allows you the power over yourself – your time, your energy, the place you live, the tools you have, to be yourself, to get the job done.

I had already spent all my savings, had cast my bread upon the waters, and had sent out hundreds of funding applications for four years to no avail. I was living above Bradshaw Home & Auto on Main Street in Cedar City, where the previous tenant had left a mattress with a huge hole burned in the middle, which I had stuffed with newspapers and covered over with plastic before sheeting it, as well as a ripped black Naugahyde couch belching forth wads of puffy filler, which I was told had served as a haven for his two pet ferrets, their waste pellets awaiting me as malodorous proof. There were bats in the hallway, but I rather enjoyed them. I could see redrock cliffs from my bed, and PV#1 had lent me a broken old kitchen table to work on. My world was complete, or at least minimally functional, until I heard the name Richard Av-ee-don.
She described his customary, sizeable entourage of a dozen assistants which supported him in photographing what would become his rather mean-spirited book which he thought would portray various representational “types” of the people of the West for New Yorkers, Manhattan natives, really, whose idea of anything west of the Hudson River was grossly, perversely ill-informed and pitiably condescending. He would give them precisely the book they needed to remain chauvinistic.
PV#1 was mistaken about the actual content of Av-ee-don’s book; he was just cherry-picking the freakish entities of the Old West gone modern, much as Diane Arbus, another New Yorker who documented the non-glitterati, portrayed in photographs what other urban sophisticates might consider the dark side of the moon, in purportedly human terms. 
I was becoming outraged. PV’s sullen mood began to elevate, sensing, perhaps, my unnatural rise in blood pressure. Anyone could have seen my confusion and abject consternation. Apparently she enjoyed having “won,” giving me a good shot to the knees. I knew I would lose everything I had worked for to the wealthy, estimable competition. When you’re 34, spending five years on a project that another photographer with a big signature and bigger bucks could take away in an instant ... there can be no adequate sense of proportion when facing the loss of that much time and effort. Worse still, I had the feeling that Mr. Avedon could never have developed, in just a few luxurious, well-insulated trips from his Manhattan kingdom, the kind of emotion, even love, such as I was experiencing in my life downwind.
I was so young. So very young and so very naive. Some years passed, and when Mr. Avedon’s book was published, I looked through it with sadness. Of course, there were no downwinders in it, because "downwinders" are not “freaks,” nor are they bleeding to the naked eye, or otherwise interesting enough to journalism, a world where “if it bleeds, it ledes,” meaning leads the news of the day. Nor would they be notable to the art world, a milieu interested only in people as self important as it is. Downwinders were salt of the earth, hardworking citizens who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, no more or less. They were you and I at our most sweaty and sincere, untarnished, at least at that time, by the American craving for fame and celebrity. They worked hard, loved their families, BIG families, and played by the rules, BIG rules. And so it turned out that I had nothing to fear from Mr. Av-ee-don and his cadre of fawning assistants, so long as I kept both journalism and the art world far from mind. I understood within months of living in Utah that it is much easier to succeed at ignoring the art world once you leave Manhattan, a gift of psychic and intellectual freedom that I had not known before, and my only nourishment.
About five years after that memorable trip to Salt Lake with PV#1, I made an appointment to photograph one of the subjects of the federal study conducted at the University of Utah of downwinders for thyroid disease, and met Della Truman from West Jordan, Utah, then a southern suburb of Salt Lake City. Years of “thyroid storms,” as her son, Jay, described them, had accelerated her metabolism to the point where her life was unbearable. The nodules on her thyroid had thus created chronic heart problems due to her chaotic metabolism, and other health difficulties. Despite periodic check-ups at the University of Utah Medical Center scheduled by the doctors conducting the federally-funded studies, she was clinically inspected but never helped in any palliative way. Her face told the story of her life: there was not a millimeter of it that was not heavily creased, cross-hatched in deep furrows from her years of excruciating pain. Never had I seen a face so distorted by suffering in a woman so young.
Previously, while living in Enterprise, Utah, a tiny, spartan town on the Nevada border directly downwind of the test site, she had also suffered many miscarriages, so prevalent in downwind communities. To look into Della Truman’s eyes was to know just what a life of suffering and betrayal could do to the human spirit.

(Her son, now officially known as “Preston” Truman, and PV#2, was born in this hardscrabble town where the fallout clouds burned the tops of the trees as they passed through. He had, as a teen, developed a type of lymphoma, Walderstrom’s disease, thyroid problems, and the emotional armor and ruthless sense of over-entitlement that I had seen in many victims who used their situation for personal gain. This psychological re-configuring of downwinders and the effect it had on their emotional lives and stability was worthy of more research, but that would have to be postponed for another book, the one that I am writing now. The Bomb had created its own distinct paranoia, it seemed, because those betrayed in the downwind areas had believed so blindly in their government, thought of themselves as more patriotic than anyone, and the cognitive dissonance of being both “chosen people” and murdered by a God-inspired entity seemed an entirely new demographic to me, worthy of its own book, minus photographs, and more anonymous. I would not be naming names, to spare those I interviewed any embarrassment.) 

Truth stranger than fiction, Mr. Avedon had also come to visit Della Truman, hoping to photograph a “stereotypical downwinder” for his book. He almost had his way with her, I was told by her son, until Mrs. Truman heard snide whispers among the assistants and Mr. Av-ee-don about photographing “that old prune.” Dignity intact despite years of suffering and betrayal, Della Truman decided that she would never again in her lifetime allow anyone to photograph her. While visiting her, and hearing this from her son while she sat stone cold before me, I decided that Della Truman deserved all the respect from me that she had not received from either Mr. Av-ee-don’s photo circus or her government. I visited her again and again over the next few years, hoping to hear more about her life “under the cloud,” but never would ask to take her portrait. I had finally understood in the most profound way the ancient maxim, that to take a photograph was to steal a person’s spirit.
The human heart can only endure so much, physically and emotionally. This was the lesson learned best from the downwinders during my years living in Utah. When Jay Truman called me one morning to tell me that his mother had died, I knew instinctively that her heart had failed during one last “thyroid storm.” True enough, he said, and he invited me to her funeral, the first and last I would attend while living downwind. I was honored to be included, but also extremely anxious, in deep conflict. Propriety and kindness dictated that I attend this Mormon religious service as a human being who had come to love this family, but my worn-out professionalism demanded that I bring my cameras  ... all the while remembering the shame of Mr. Av-ee-don’s insult.
Thus the joy of being a documentarian: the gift of time. Shortly after I accepted the invitation to the funeral and burial, Jay asked me, as a favor to him and to his family, to photograph his mother as she lay in her casket. I packed all kinds of cameras, even my heavy studio 4 x 5 view camera, yet I felt, as I always do, that bringing studio lights or using a strobe would be too disrespectful, attracting unwanted attention in the mortuary. This limited the possibilities but, as ever, the true problem would lie deep within me, making an image of a woman so humiliated in her own lifetime as to forbid any photographs to be taken of her. Would she appear mangled by her life’s last struggle? Would there be any possibility at all for me to portray her with respect, without exploitation, somehow capturing the spirit of the person she had been before the Bomb’s fallout had transformed her, body and soul?
I have since learned that anxieties such as these are purely neurotic fantasies, and the reality of making an image is actually quite simple. Della Truman was laid to rest in traditional Mormon garb, a simple white wedding garment with a thin veil over her face and body. Beneath this I observed a kind of apron, sewn and embroidered by her closest female relatives, of green fig leaves, the emblem of innocence and virtue to which all Mormon women aspired. In this quaint and lovely clothing Della Truman would meet her heavenly father, at long last.
In all my anxiety, however, I had set up my camera on the tripod before even looking into Della Truman’s casket. It was very dark in the mortuary, with no additional lighting possible. The white of her bridal gown against the white satin of the casket created a bright aura, blending all the tones into a harmony of whites and grays that seemed to glisten. No technical issues to disturb me, I finally prepared myself to look at her face, but what I saw astonished me. In life, her face had been chaotic, riven with deep lines, leaving not a single smooth patch of skin. Now, at peace in death, her skin was luminous, entirely free of wrinkles, smooth as that of a young girl.

Della Truman in my previous essay in Daylight Magazine.

Daylight Issue 6, 2007

  
In a lifetime, any photographer not totally asleep at the wheel will take tens of thousands of photographs, maybe more. Many of these will have a backstory never told. Some images will be much beloved, others will never be printed larger than a contact sheet, and for good reason! Being a photographer is a gamble, and a life in photography is by its nature absolutely against all odds.
My photograph of Della Truman at her final rest will always be my favorite, not only because of the lessons I learned in obtaining it, technical and personal, over many years, but also because it taught me to appreciate so many things about a photographer’s life: the harsh leavening of uncertainty, the foolishness of professional competitiveness, and the power of perseverance and love even in a culture, as our own today, where the banality of evil is our daily bread. And had I been as aggressive and as rude, or as rich and famous, as Mr. Av-ee-don had allegedly been, this image of Mrs. Truman would never have been created.
++++++++++++++
Near the end of my time downwind, I experienced an uptick of the harassment, professional, physical and emotional, that had made my seven years in Utah so impossible. In the middle of the night for about three months, my phone would ring numerous times, and I would pick up the call because my father was becoming increasingly ill and frail back home in New York. Sometimes muffled voices threatened me, sometimes it would be just a hang-up and then a few more calls; it was enormously distressing, and the insomnia it created was ruinous to my work and health. I asked the Salt Lake City police to help me and in late 1989, they did. I was told I could have my phone tapped to see who was calling me, and then get a civil stalking injunction to make it stop. 

Preston Jay Truman at Beaver Dam Wash, Utah. Photo copyright Carole Gallagher


1988 was the year that the MacArthur Foundation awarded me a prestigious grant in support of my project, and while I finally had the financial freedom to finish the book, the jealousy and outright harassment from other artists, activists, PVs, and particularly the men where I was teaching at the University of Utah, was palpable and devastating. Yet never would I have guessed, thanks to the Salt Lake City Police, that the perpetrators of this nightly agenda of phone calls and threats lay at the feet of the gun-toting Preston Jay Truman and his trusty sidekick and lifelong companion, Monte Bright. I knew I had to go home to New York to be safe, peaceful and productive now, but I still had so much work to finish in the downwind states.

It would be professionally tricky to use the legal system against any downwinder, and even a restraining order would cause hard feelings. I didn’t know how I could finish my field work and survive emotionally, and the idea of commuting from New York to Utah a few times a year also felt stifling and inadequate ... and expensive! But it was my only alternative, a 2,300 mile commute, one-way, work for a month while living in a safe place with friends, and another 2,300 mile commute home. Nevertheless I was absolutely resistant to the idea of leaving Utah before my work was done. It felt like an overt lack of commitment in the face of some rather vile pressure from a couple of downwinders themselves, more like the brown rice-teeth backwoods characters from the film Deliverance than from a Dorothea Lange documentary. I was unwilling to let them force me to leave Utah, and yet ...

After photographing Della Truman, and years later discovering a darker truth about her son than I might have imagined, I had a beautiful early morning dream while sleeping on the floor of my North Main Street apartment in Salt Lake City. I had become accustomed to falling asleep in the living room on a yoga mat in front of an enormous picture window which faced west to the Great Salt Lake ... a view I had come to cherish over the years. I could see tremendous storms approaching from fifty miles to the west, and often watched a pale yellow moon set in the early morning hours behind the peaks of Antelope Island. That was the bright side of having becoming an insomniac, watching the night sky. I kept hummingbird feeders hanging outside the other open window, where I could hear the birds buzz and trill as they fed while the sun rose from behind the Wasatch Mountains and whistles blew at the nearby train yards. 

That morning I dreamed that a strong wind blew me back home to New York, and I could feel the force of that warm wind on my face in the moments before awakening. I opened my eyes to see a hummingbird hovering a few inches above my nose, watching me, perhaps attracted to the color of my pink nightgown or red duvet cover. I don’t know why Della Truman came immediately to mind, such a very tiny woman in her shining white casket, as I gazed at that hummingbird, but I thanked both of them for what I hoped was a reprieve from seven years of trauma and local ill-will in Utah, a return to my home on Mercer Street, my field work almost done. She knew her son better than I did, and it seemed that she released me from him, and all the other professional victims, whose slander and emotional dishonesty had created such turmoil, such distress requiring so much of my energy to keep an aura of false calm while I worked in “the cloak of invisibility” to document their secret nuclear war all those years. 
Many years later, I learned from a reporter from one of the local television stations in Salt Lake City, Michael Rawson, that Jay Truman had told him and many others that I “hated Mormons,” and that I was an operative for the C.I.A. or the F.B.I.  He was also fond of telling anyone who would listen the baldfaced lie that I had encouraged every foundation not to fund him, and thus 

 “Nobody has done more to harm the cause of Downwinders than Carole Gallagher.” 

Small wonder I was so reviled! None of it was true, yet I had lived for seven years in a state with the highest statistics for fraud in the country, highest level of prescribed anti-depressants and sedatives, the highest levels of child sexual abuse, and plenty of pretty creepy paranoia to go around. I supposed that people would believe just about anything if this kind of place represented itself as the Promised Land, filled to the gills with Chosen People who were “white and delightsome unto the Lord.” If I wasn’t blonde or blue-eyed enough, fine. If I was a brown-eyed brunette and looked Jewish enough to have people come uncomfortably close to me many times, look at my nose, scrunch up their faces in disdain and ask, “Are you Gee-you-ish?” then I had learned all I wanted to know about ignorant bigotry and developed a thicker skin. Rural Utahns still called African-Americans “niggers” completely without guile … reason enough for me to join the Salt Lake City chapter of the NAACP, which I did. But I was not at all a macho war-correspondent, and I didn’t want any more malignant bigotry, hatred, physical assaults, office break-ins, threats and petty slander as my daily bread. It had been so depressing for so long, and harmed my concentration on work I had to do.

One morning I discovered a bullet placed just outside the door of my apartment, reminiscent of sleazy Mafioso death threats. I soon packed up the entire three tons of paperwork, negatives, and research I had collected and put it in a moving van. The next day I headed home to Manhattan in my truck. On tape, K.D. Lang was singing a song of solace about “western skies” on the stereo. I told almost no one I was leaving. The hummingbirds and Della Truman were on my side, and I trusted their message as I’ve never trusted anything in my life. 

The message was: Get out! Get out right now! You’ve got the book you came for! Go home! Git! And don't look back.



Much as I may try, two decades later, at 60, I am content that I may never again do anything in my life so well or so deeply moving and transformational as that book, but somehow I feel I have Della Truman’s blessing on my life to “keep on keepin’ on,” as they say in the Marines, her encouraging, generous spirit hovering above my head like that tiny, whirring hummingbird, its fragrant breeze of unrequited love on my face. 

“There can be no great disappointment where there is no great love.”
 
So thank you, Mr. Av-ee-don. I could never have done this without you.

And Mrs. Truman ... I cannot thank you enough.



Della Truman at Rest. Photo copyright Carole Gallagher.









*CITATION
   This quotation is a modern paraphrase of what Bacon wrote in Latin in his 1620 work Novum Organum, Book I, Section CXXIX.  A convenient version of the original is in James Spedding, et al., eds., The Works of Francis Bacon, Vol. I (London: Longman's & Company, 1872), 222.   For a slightly different modern translation, see Hugh C. Dick, ed., Selected Writings of Francis Bacon (New York: The Modern Library, 1955), 539.  The version that Lange favored I found in Milton Meltzer, Dorothea Lange: A Photographer's Life (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1978), 79.