Michael Danner, Critical Mass

Printed Matters

Michael Danner, Critical Mass

By Amelia Rina August 5, 2014

From artists' monographs to beach reads, "Printed Matters" offers a monthly take by a rotating group of contributors on visual art through the printed word.

The word nuclear is synonymous with power, but at a price. After the rosy haze encapsulating the world’s view of nuclear power in the 1950s dissipated, revealing the potentially devastating long-term effects of radiation contamination, the community of skeptics and protestors continues to grow. The most detrimental consequence of nuclear power is the legacy of its disasters: The effects of radiation can last anywhere from 200,000 to over 4 billion years.1 In radical contrast to the rate of the radioactive isotopes’ decay, the chain reaction caused by nuclear fission resulting in the production of energy occurs extremely rapidly. As such, nuclear power has an inherent connection between the present and the extreme distant future. Though it focuses on a much narrower time frame—a period of about thirty years—a book by German photographer Michael Danner, Critical Mass, utilizes the bond between our past and present relationships with nuclear power to reveal a projection of the potential future.

Printed on lightweight matte paper, the book starts and ends with the past. Danner includes black-and-white photographs made by German photographer Günter Zint and images from the federal police archives. The images depict the violent governmental response to the protests against the use of nuclear power in the German towns of Brokdorf, Gorleben, and Wackersdorf in the 1970s and 1980s. The opening begins with a flock of helicopters in an overcast sky, hovering over a field where, in the distance, human specks gather on the horizon. The following pages show rows of police wielding riot shields as they march behind a military truck, or a cluster of them standing in wait by a contrastingly ordinary house whose residents observe the commotion through the windows; a man standing on a small hill who turns to protect himself from an eruption of debris; hordes of helmeted squads looking bored; and a man being dragged on the ground while a nearby officer comfortably rests his hands on his hips and looks off in the distance. The final black-and-white image faces the first contemporary color image by Danner. In Zint’s image on the left, a line of protestors carries a flag down a road. Danner’s image on the right of the same town, twenty years later, abruptly transports us to the present.

The dearth of human life creates a prophetic glimpse into a post-homo sapiens world ...

The section of Danner’s photographs, which makes up the majority of the book, systematically carries the viewer through the environments surrounding the nuclear power plants, their exteriors, and the interiors, which range from exceedingly mundane functionality to innermost spaces so bizarre they verge on otherworldly. In line with the history of German photography—most notably the extremely formal style of documenting typologies of industrial buildings carried out by Bernd and Hilla Becher—Danner’s photographs are immaculate. Like the Bechers, who also photographed the cooling towers’ unmistakable hyperboloid structures closely associated with nuclear power plants, Danner presents the subject matter with a clinical distance that lays a stillness over all the images. Additionally, aside from the plumes of steam erupting from the large cooling towers, there is no rendering of movement in any of the photos, nor is there a single person. The dearth of human life creates a prophetic glimpse into a post-homo sapiens world in which the technology we created to power our lives ultimately eradicates our species. Contrary to the foreboding, empty scenes, Danner’s photographs depict no destruction or even disruption; the world he shows is not one after a meltdown or a massacre, but one in which the humans simply vanished without a trace.

Through the seventeen nuclear-power sites in Germany he visited, Danner illustrates an expanded view of places typically inaccessible to the general public. In addition to the plants’ massive size and consequently large workforce, the general homogeneity of the interiors builds to a claustrophobic banality. Images of rows upon rows of keys, numbered lockboxes, temperature gauges, empty cubbies, and workers’ helmets allude to just how many people work at the plants. In their absence, however, Danner provides an ominous view into the evidence of the workers’ experiences. He methodically guides us through categories of interiors, utilizing repetition to amplify the impact of the various elements; the exposition is not subtle. Upon first entering the plants, we encounter a variety of security turnstiles and checkpoints, setting a tone of solemnity. Next we see lines of full-body uniforms hanging from hooks, ready to erase any distinguishing identity from the bodies that fill them. Bins labeled “used towels,” “contaminated shoes,” and “contaminated overalls” suggest the hazards faced by the workers, a suggestion drastically amplified by a sign tucked in a corner above a strange yellow hatch on the floor. The sign has an arrow pointing to the hatch and reads “Emergency Exit.” A series of medical rooms enhance the omnipresent sense of danger: a CPR practice dummy lies on the floor; a body scanner looms over an exam bed while a small photograph of a nude woman lying outstretched on a sun-bleached beach hangs on the wall; a shelf is stacked with multiple copies of binders labeled “Emergency Handbook” in parts I, II, and III.

Tall, thin columns sweat in a fog so thick we can only see maybe twenty feet ahead, as if in a sci-fi dystopian dream.

Once the office space is left behind, a mix of giant, brightly colored metallic containers, pipes, and other mechanical devices create the landscape where the heat produced by the fission reactions is converted into electrical energy. Then, when we enter the underground tunnels used to transport the nuclear waste, we enter another world. Almost entirely monochromatic, save a few splashes of colored lights or wiring, the tunnels act as an all-too-apt metaphor for the industry’s mentality surrounding nuclear waste disposal: out of sight, out of mind. Lastly, we travel through the eerie and atmospheric interior walls of the cooling towers. Tall, thin columns sweat in a fog so thick we can only see maybe twenty feet ahead, as if in a sci-fi dystopian dream. And once again, we are in the past—Danner uses evidentiary photographs from the police archive to bookend the narrative with an unapologetic series of images documenting the violent result of the protests: smashed car windows, bullet holes in a wall, the side of a road littered with detritus from the chaos, concluding with a series of evidence photographs.

By folding the linear timeline of history onto itself, Danner emphasizes the still-relevant concerns of nuclear power. Today, younger generations may not know the impact of the disaster at Chernobyl, but with the recent meltdown at Fukushima, the danger is clearly still very real. The problem is the general public’s lack of understanding or concern regarding nuclear power plants. For example, the technical process that guides nuclear fission’s conversion to electrical energy may seem entirely inaccessible to a layperson, but on a basic level, nuclear power plants produce steam. They are essentially massive, radioactive teapots that spin turbines. Popular culture even trivializes the volatile and complex work required to safely use nuclear power through characters like Homer Simpson, whose comical mishaps at his job as the safety inspector at the Springfield nuclear power plant yield few consequences. Danner forthrightly demands a change in that attitude. There is much work to be done, however, which he recognizes. The term “critical mass” refers to the minimum amount of fissionable material required to create the chain reactions that in turn produce the energy.2 By titling the book Critical Mass, Danner provides a catalyst that will hopefully result in a chain reaction of awareness.



  1.  "Uranium." EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, http://www.epa.gov/radiation/radionuclides/uranium.html#content
  2. "Critical Mass (physics),"Encyclopedia Britannica Online, Encyclopedia Britannica, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/143385/critical-mass

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