Photography is a curious shape shifter. It can fit and mould itself to so many different modes of display, from the gallery wall to the cinema screen. And what is remarkable is that as it adapts to these different media and spaces, it takes on something of their different qualities, including their storytelling possibilities. A photographic narrative told through an exhibition is narratively very different from the same work told in the form of a film, or a book. I think this is important to acknowledge and to think about, because the ways that we tell stories shape in very profound ways the ideas that our audiences take from them.
… rather than being a tool which we simply and unproblematically use, technology is something which is profoundly shaped by us, and which in turn also shapes us as well.
My latest book, Depravity’s Rainbow, is in a way an experiment in storytelling. But it is also about events of significance for our entire planet and species. It tells the story of how space exploration and rocketry were subsumed into one of the most depraved projects in human history, and how the people involved ultimately went on to conqueror space ‘for all mankind’. It raises questions about the moral gravity of our actions, and the idea that the consequences of all deeds eventually come full circle. It’s a book about political expediency and opportunism, and the idea that ends do not justify means. Perhaps most of all though it’s about the nature of technology, and the idea that rather than being a tool which we simply and unproblematically use, technology is something which is profoundly shaped by us, and which in turn also shapes us as well.
Four years ago, I was finishing a project about the spy radio networks known as numbers stations. Using declassified documents and Google Earth, I was trying to geolocate a series of radio transmitters operated by intelligence agencies, a true case of searching for a needle in a haystack. I feel that it is important, if you want to use any technology or process in your work to make a political point, then you also need to try and understand the politics of that technology. Who made it, why, and with what consequence for the world? In the case of satellite imaging these are big questions, and the seemingly innocuous tool that we use on a daily basis to navigate to unfamiliar places originated in the 1950s, developed by the US Central Intelligence Agency to spy on Soviet Russia. Traces of this history still remain, embedded in platforms like Google Earth.
A group of German rocket engineers, working with American specialists, were busily firing captured V-2 rockets high above the New Mexico desert. Among them was Wernher von Braun, who had been the lead developer of the V-2 in Germany during the war, where it was used as a last-ditch vengeance weapon.
As I was researching this history, I found a photograph of the earth taken from space in 1947, a decade before the first optical intelligence satellites took to the skies. This caught me unprepared and forced me to reconsider a lot of what I thought I knew about space exploration. I’d always held it in my head that Sputnik, launched in 1957, was the first satellite. But here was evidence of someone launching rockets high above the earth a whole decade earlier and even taking photographs with them. Who was doing this, what were they launching, and why, were my immediate thoughts, and the answers were almost as strange as the question.
A group of German rocket engineers, working with American specialists, were busily firing captured V-2 rockets high above the New Mexico desert. Among them was Wernher von Braun, who had been the lead developer of the V-2 in Germany during the war, where it was used as a last-ditch vengeance weapon. Carrying a ton of high explosives, with a range of about 200 miles, it was an inaccurate terror weapon which had no real military use, and rather like the vindictive levelling of Ukrainian cities by Russian missiles today, served only the purpose of indiscriminately killing civilians. Thousands of men, women and children died under the V-2’s needle tip before the end of the war as it bore down on cities like London, Paris, and Antwerp at three times the speed of sound. Around 20,000 people also died at Mittelwerk, the hellish underground prison factory in central Germany where the V-2 was mass produced by slave labour.
How was it possible that a man like von Braun who had been involved in such things was at liberty in the United States a few years later, and continuing to develop and launch rockets? The answer was that in the extreme pragmatism of the Cold War era, he, and others like him were considered to more useful as allies against Soviet communism, than they would be in the dock at a war crimes tribunal. Consequently, von Braun went on to a glittering career in the United States, developing amongst other things the Redstone missile, the first US nuclear armed missile, and then ultimately working for NASA where he oversaw development of the Saturn V, the rocket which landed men on the moon in 1969. Reading about this history left me was with a burning desire to reconcile these two seemingly irreconcilable sides of his life. The first task in this was the simplest, collecting archival imagery from the V-2 and Apollo projects from archives and museums across the world, and accompanying these images with my own photographs of significant sites in the V-2’s development.
The harder part was how to put these materials together in a way which was not simply a linear narration of von Braun’s life, from birth to death, but instead a retelling which was able to draw connections between the two seemingly very different halves of it, and also make particular use of the structure of a book. I’ve always loved experimental fiction, and as I read about von Braun I also had works like Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five (1969), and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) in my mind. Both about the Second World War, and the latter specifically about V-2, both use surprising, improbable narrative approaches to bring to life their subjects. Vonnegut’s book leaps around in time, echoing the experience of post-traumatic stress disorder that it is often speculated he experienced after witnessing the total destruction of Dresden by the British and American air forces in 1945. Pynchon’s book for its part uses a narrative structure which is often described as having been inspired by the flight of a ballistic missile, a parabolic arc shaped like an inverted V or U.
Narratively speaking, a human lifetime told chronologically is about as predictable as a story gets. We are born, things happen to us, then we die. It’s a marvel in a way that we still enjoy these stories, and in large part that’s down to the unpredictable twists and turns that happen along the way between birth and death. But I was trying to straighten out the twists and turns in von Braun’s life and make sense of them, and so I came to the idea that rather than a life story told like a straight line, leading from birth to death, one could instead twist that story into a V, or more appropriately turned on its side like a >, with the person’s birth and death both occurring at the start of the story, and then the two strands of their life continuing in parallel, one running forwards and one running backwards in time, before joining together with some momentous event, at the end of the book, the tip of the >.
Places like Peenemunde, from which the first man made object reached space in 1944, are today remote, overgrown, and strewn with unexploded bombs from the war. They are hardly tourist destinations, except for a strange and select few like myself.
For von Braun, that joining event was the end of the Second World War, his surrender to US forces and the liberation of the Mittelwerk camp where thousands had died to realise his dream of space travel. Structuring his life in this way, allowed me to place events from the two halves of his life side by side in a way which still made sense even though they were separated by years and decades. A photograph of his first meeting with Adolf Hitler in 1934 could in this way be seen alongside his first meeting with John F. Kennedy in 1962. A pockmarked photograph of the moon from 1964 could be seen alongside an image of the moon like landscape left behind after the Royal Air Force bombed the main V-2 development works in 1943.
Amongst these two historical strands I scattered my own photographs, taken during trips to revisit some the key sites where rocketry and space exploration began. What is remarkable about many of these sites is that despite the massive public interest in space, few people have ever heard of these locations. Places like Peenemunde, from which the first man made object reached space in 1944, are today remote, overgrown, and strewn with unexploded bombs from the war. They are hardly tourist destinations, except for a strange and select few like myself. I wanted to juxtapose these forgotten sites with the better-known historic images which are now almost burnt into our collective retinas from our overexposure to them.
Both the archival and contemporary photographs are printed as cyanotypes, the latter toned brown, the former left in their natural bright blue. This was partly a pragmatic choice, as the imagery I had collected over these four years varied massively in quality, colouration, and other things, and to view them in their unaltered form was a distracting experience. But like the satellite photographs I mentioned at the start, those cyanotypes also have a history which traces back to the things this project is intended to talk about. The cyanotype process was invented by the astronomer John Herschel in 1842, making it one of the earliest photographic processes. It later found widespread use by engineers as a means of making exact copies of diagrams and plans, which were popularly known as blueprints.
But the while cyanotype prints themselves are chemically inert, the constituent chemicals used to create them are also closely related to the hydrogen cyanide gas that was used in the murder of at least one million people during the Holocaust. Even today some of the gas chambers, like at the Majdanek extermination camp in Poland, are dyed with the same Prussian blue that gives the cyanotype its vivid hues. It is a fact which hints at the long history of interconnectedness between technologies of creation and life, and technologies of destruction and death.
This is ultimately a book about binaries, in particular the moral binaries that we put on historical figures as heroes or villains. But it is also about the often binary and simplistic way that we often look at technologies. They are never just neutral tools that solve a need or problem. They are the product of a whole set of things; technical goals, cultural ideals, happenstance and accident, expediency, and convenience. Their development is negotiated and fought over, and the final shape of a technology is the product of a struggle over different views of it and the world in which it will exist. There are always multiple possible paths for a technology to develop along, and Space exploration and the rocketry that made it possible were the result of just one of those paths. A more humane version of rocketry was possible, and is still possible. But until that exists, it is important we remember how the rockets that actually exist, and which we are still launching today, came into being.