New MIP Library exhibit

GVL/Michael Dykstra
Incendiary Iconography.  Student- Megan Lendman.  5th year photography major.

GVL/Michael Dykstra Incendiary Iconography. Student- Megan Lendman. 5th year photography major.

Allison Ribick

Individuals with an interest in photography will have the chance to see the Incendiary Iconography exhibition in the Mary Idema Pew Library at Grand Valley State University.

The showcase consists of photographs of the former Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant and related waste disposal sites, taken by GVSU’s Director of the School of Communications and professor of photography Anthony Thompson.

Thompson used a Hasselblad medium-format film camera. He had to make multiple trips to Colorado over the course of about eight years to complete his work. He always had to have a worker with him in the highly secured area and was required to go through security and get dressed up in the proper gear each time.

Thompson’s work depicts the equipment, buildings and workers at the weapons plant. The workers dealt with poisonous materials such as Plutonium, Uranium and Beryllium.

“As I went through, I tried to find places where I could show the interaction of the human element with the technological,” Thompson said.

Gloves hanging off of machines, his self-portrait reflected onto glass while looking into a self-retrieving system for canisters of Plutonium and finding more about the workers’ lives are examples of this.

In one photograph, a worker is wearing a respirator suit while dealing with poisonous chemicals. The respirator suit only lasts for so many hours, which workers would keep track of with different colored tapes with their names on a wall.

These workers were often young, in their early 20s. Because the job is so risky, it would pay a lot of money, Thompson explained. The workers regarded themselves as invincible, which young people often do.

“When you look at the tapes, you see the same name starting to repeat over and over again,” Thompson said. “You get a sense of how many hours they spent in this really dangerous environment. I’ve always kind of liked that piece of the story – what people were willing to do.”

The plant was built in the late 1940s and was designed for bomb making, specifically the pit for bigger nuclear weapons. As those technologies changed, however, the plant had to do things it was not designed for, which resulted in making it a dangerous environment and produced excess waste.

“I grew up nearby, and I knew people who worked there, but they could never talk about what they did there,” Thompson said.

When the plant was destroyed, Thompson saw a window of opportunity before it disappeared completely.

“(It was) an important time to get in and try to document what was there, what did it look like, who were the people, what was their experience,” Thompson said. “I felt that it was a story that was only told in little bits by journalists here and there, but hadn’t been really photographed in a consistent way.”

Currently, people are debating about whether or not to build a new plant somewhere else, or at least put the technologies to make the pits of nuclear weapons into another plant, which is a controversial topic.

The exhibition was also featured at the University of Northern Colorado, Louisiana Tech University, Washington University and other college galleries.

The opening reception was held on Nov. 4 from 5 to 7 p.m. in the exhibition space of the Mary Idema Pew Library. Students and the public were in attendance, walking around the space and enjoying Thompson’s artwork. Refreshments were included.

Autumn Johnson was one of the attendants of the reception. Johnson is a senior photography student who is enrolled in Thompson’s course, The Social Eye, which deals with documentaries. She heard about this project in her class and has seen Thompson’s work in Lake Superior Hall.

“I actually really enjoy his photography because of the type of camera he was using and the type of environment that he was in,” Johnson said. “I think he captured the scene very well.”

Megan Lendman is also a senior photography student who is enrolled in Thompson’s class. She noted that the extensive amount of time Thompson spent on the photos, and the time spent reading the captions at the exhibit, increases the value of it.

“He creates emotion in the images through the beautiful tonality of the black and white,” Lendman said. “Then when you read the captions, it makes you feel sad – or at least for me. Because of what these people were exposed to and how they had to take care of this weapon site. I’m also a nonviolent person, so it made me think about all of the weapons facilities that are around the world that are secretive or off of our radar.”

The exhibit will be at the Mary Idema Pew Library until Nov. 14.

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