Ben Huff – Atomic Island
The melancholy of Ben Huff’s Atomic Island is palpable before even opening the book. The textured cloth gray cover evokes the muddiness of melting snow and, as an extension, beauty’s ephemeral nature. A tipped-in picture on the back of a nautical horizon offers a pensive respite to end (or begin) our journey into the city where this narrative takes place and whose name, embossed in large white letters, feels strangely pleasurable to speak out loud: Adak. Similar seascapes open the book, perhaps to make us reflect on how time weighs more heavily in remote places. Atomic Island concentrates on a handful of subjects that are representative of a past American military campaign torn between defending and conquering, mixing deadpan photographs by Huff with military images from various archives. This dynamic selection underscores the ruination of the Aleutian landscape while giving a sense of its recent history. Every design component, courtesy ofHans Gremmen, has been calibrated to focus our attention on the meditative quality of Huff’s images, starting with the book’s large size, which gives the scenes an appropriate presence.
Atomic Island concentrates on a handful of subjects that are representative of a past American military campaign torn between defending and conquering, mixing deadpan photographs by Huff with military images from various archives. This dynamic selection underscores the ruination of the Aleutian landscape while giving a sense of its recent history.
The fact that the military operation was terminated because – until recently, at least – the Cold War seemed to be over, highlights the geopolitical currency of Huff’s project and how we can benefit from knowing more about the ramifications of American armed conflicts. An insert in the middle of the book in a reduced trim size and thinner stock reproduces a brochure for military housing on the island, describing it as “the best outside the US.” Its inclusion in the book allows us to imagine the lives of those who believed the government’s promise of “new surroundings, a comfortable house, and some very fine neighbors.” Maybe these promises were accurate at some point, even if the assurance of “a closed community life” in such a remote place seems difficult to sustain. This insert interrupts a double-spread view of a residential area, suggesting that Adak’s fractured community no longer matches the brochure’s stated aims. The subsequent pages are equally stirring, showing archival aerial images of bombings, followed by a Huff picture of a cartoonish drawing of a bomb on a wall, an assemblage that recalls the dark humor of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1969) or the grotesque attributes of Claes Oldenburg’s oversized sculptures.
A brief text in a second insert near the end of the book summarizes the history of the island’s occupation: the American army moved into the region after the Japanese attacked Dutch Harbor, Alaska, in 1942. This part of the state remained a prized location during the Cold War and the furthest western front of the US military. The base in Adak housed six thousand soldiers and their families at some point, but the city’s lifestyle and economy ended abruptly when the Navy left the island in 1997. Fewer than a hundred people live in Adak now, and the faces we encounter in this second insert are tinged with sorrow. There will always be people who feel inextricably bound to their land regardless of its troubles, although it would have been interesting to speculate on why this group has decided to remain and what they do to survive in a nearly empty city. We can only infer their psychological reasoning from the desolate scenes on view. Huff’s decision to collate the portraits in the insert can be read as representative of the community’s closeness.
An abundance of images of military facilities – bunkers, training sites, schools, barracks, and hangars – underscores the scope of the operation and the shock of their sudden abandonment. However, the register of evocations aroused by this collection of structures is closer to capitalist ruins like shopping centers than to those awakened by dilapidated castles or churches. Unless one has lived in Adak or is a military brat, one is more likely to feel anger rather than nostalgia toward these spaces. For instance, a picture of a derelict control room denotes that the technology behind all those buttons, levers, and gauges was useless against governmental caprices. Similarly, a sense of patriotic arrogance is literally stated in the picture of a handwritten message on an office wall – “In God we trust / All others we monitor” – that feels doubly aggressive for those of us who aren’t American and who consider their conflation of religion and politics, especially those of warfare, a vicious custom with disastrous geopolitical consequences.
It seems safe to bet that Huff’s alluring book will serve, in the years to come, as a reference point for the yet-to-be-named period before the relations between Russia and the United States became worryingly strained once again.
Amongst the countless images of detritus reverberating throughout the book, my favorite one is of a wooden board used to display employee portraits. Here, the board is on the floor, upside down and devoid of images, an apt metonym for Adak’s calamitous dissolution of social life and a reminder of the massive displacement of people that a nuclear fallout would cause (those lucky enough to flee or survive its effects). The best pictures in Atomic Island work in such a syncretic manner, embedded in a sequence that’s fluid and open-ended. It seems safe to bet that Huff’s alluring book will serve, in the years to come, as a reference point for the yet-to-be-named period before the relations between Russia and the United States became worryingly strained once again.