Janire Nájera

Atomic Ed

Book review by Alice Zoo

An envelope marked ‘SECRET’ falls out of Atomic Ed when the book is opened. Inside is an informational leaflet entitled ‘You and the ATOMIC BOMB: what to do in case of an atomic attack’. We are cautioned that “An entire city could be crippled temporarily by one bomb,” and “If you are above ground anywhere within three quarters of a mile from the air burst, you will have less than a 50-50 chance of survival.” We are told to roll towards a wall if no shelter is available, and to cover our heads from the heat and flash and radiation of an air burst. Despite the above, the leaflet positions itself as rational, empowering, even soothing: “If you are one of those who has said to yourself, “There is no defence against the atomic bomb,” the facts, as you will see, are otherwise.” Its inclusion within the project primes us, a contemporary audience living without such immediate fears, for the context that informs the work: the threat of annihilation, the gargantuan power wielded by governments and scientists in pockets of the world like Los Alamos, New Mexico. Janire Nájera immerses us within this context, and introduces us to one of the bomb’s fiercest opponents – whose moniker lends the book its title – Edward Bernard Grothus.

Nájera’s book project, published with Editorial RM, is the result of six years spent travelling to New Mexico and sorting through Ed’s archive, curated and presented here in the form of a remarkable narrative which makes up the first half of Atomic Ed. We meet Ed as a young man, rejected from the military on medical grounds, travelling through South America. The first images in the book interweave formal portraits of Ed’s parents with an image of him as an infant, the origin story of an understated hero. In one early image, he gazes out across a Rio de Janeiro skyline, hair slicked back. Soon after that photograph was taken, at the age of 26, he accepted a position as Machinist at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, helping to develop and refine the atomic bomb itself. At this point, the narrative skips and fractures: we see Ed much later in life, beaming, bobbing amongst a rally of people bearing signs announcing one of his favourite slogans: “One bomb is too many.” It is here that we meet him as he came to be known. Atomic Ed was a campaigner, a lifelong agitator against the atomic bomb, its consequences, and the brutal decisions made by those in power.

Following Ed’s archive and a collection of his correspondence, during which time we come to know and befriend him, we are presented for the first time with a series of Nájera’s own images. The Black Hole – so named because “everything seemed to go in but very little ever left” – was the shop Ed ran and curated. It sold assorted surplus material from the Los Alamos National Laboratory and acted as the hub of his political campaigning. After Ed’s death in 2009, no longer tended to with his obsessive care, the shop closed down and a sale occurred, designed to ensure that “as much stock as possible was owned by members of the community rather than being sold as scrap”. The Black Hole was a record of Ed’s meticulous attention to the cause, a rescuing of the materials that surrounded and populated his work; it was the physical embodiment of his enduring fixation. Nájera’s photo series documents a selection of these strange objects and materials, mostly unintelligible to the layperson when seen uncaptioned: gadgets and gewgaws with protruding wires, some sinister with symbols warning hazard, some seemingly benign (a box of phone handsets, books, a stack of graphite bricks).

The Grothus archive as arranged by Nájera is engaging and visually appealing. The vivid colours of childhood snaps counterpose uncomfortably beautiful photographs of bombs bursting on desert plains: a burst of white gold in the centre of a blue-tinged dawn sandscape, the billowing orange bouquet of a mushroom cloud, each enlarged from slides taken from the Los Alamos lab documentation of bomb tests and trials. The rhythm established is one of ordinary life running alongside immense powers of destruction, a precarious coexistence that is rarely confronted in the everyday. Running through this uneasy admixture of imagery is Ed’s voice, via the telegrams and letters he sent, at times righteous and rageful — “Stop waging war. Stop your stupid war.” — and at others hopeful: “We cannot put the genie back into the bottle but with abolition of nuclear bombs we could all be certain of a future”. The voice that emerges is chipper yet obstinate, that of a sincere person fired up by a cause. It is striking, then, following the warmth and energy of the letters and family snapshots, that Nájera’s still lives are so austere: photographed in stark black and white, against plain monochromatic backdrops, and removed from context so that the objects she portrays seem baldly alien. Like the atomic advice leaflet that acts as a kind of prologue, it bookends Ed’s archive with the foreboding nature of its theme, that of atomic capability, which in fact — of course — has not dissipated: we live in a world where countries consider it necessary to retain nuclear power for the morbid quasi-reassurance of mutually assured destruction, should it come to that.

It is refreshing to meet with a work so free of ego in a photographic landscape that, at times, feels increasingly preoccupied with ideas of authorship. The recontextualisation of an archive allows a pile of letters to become a work of art, and even of friendship: we feel the anger and resistance and determination of a person dedicated to a vast cause that didn’t dissipate after the administration of a particular ‘president’ or with the end of a war, but that was ongoing throughout his life, though the acuteness of its threat shifted and transformed. Nájera’s particular achievement with the archive is to draw out this determination at the same time as Ed’s winking sense of humour and charisma. It is this extraordinary levity in his dealings with such a doom-laden subject that makes Ed’s archive so beguiling: his rightful rage is tempered by the velvet glove of his sarcasm and flashing grin. A 1973 telegram to Nixon, for example: “I think it is so very nice that you won’t be able to kill, bomb, burn and destroy beyond August 15th.”

At the time of writing, London’s roads have been blockaded for several days by the Extinction Rebellion. Commuters have been incensed by the inconvenience. Media discussion of the protests veers between the urgent and the hopeless. (Ed was aware of climate threat, too: he said that “a solution to the energy problem, so necessary for survival after the easy energy has been consumed should become a widely, freely, and ardently discussed issue here in Los Alamos.”) It is, of course, impossible to quantify the impact of a single campaigner or campaign on colossal issues like climate change or atomic capability, but Ed’s case is instructive: agitating for a better life while not seeing immediate results does not have to be disillusioning, but instead can be a lifelong attitude. Refusal to kowtow to the status quo can be both fierce and joyful. In the portraits of Ed that feature in the book he is, invariably, smiling, white-haired and with a twinkle in his eye; his desk strewn with books, his shelves packed with atomic detritus, and in front of him, a sign that reads “The legendary ED GROTHUS.”

All images courtesy of the artist and Editorial RM. © Janire Nájera

Alice Zoo is a photographer and writer based in London, working with national and international publications such as BBC News, the British Journal of Photography, and the Washington Post. She is also a freelance photo editor at the FT Weekend Magazine, and co-founder of Interloper magazine.

Laia Abril


Book review by Natasha Christia

He was an ordinary man of small stature with a mildly effeminate face. He belonged to the privileged few of his time, those who knew how to read and write. He undertook traditionally female manual tasks – tailoring, knitting, weaving spinning and cooking were among his aptitudes. A widower from a childless marriage at the age of just 25, he became a peddler and a guide for travellers across the inhospitable mountainous area between Galicia and the neighbouring provinces of León, Asturias and Cantabria.

In 1843 he was charged for his first murder but escaped arrest. Under a false name he led a seemingly peaceful religious life in a remote parish near the village of Robordechao, where, having earning their trust and affection, he indulged in numerous idylls with single, separated or widowed women from the area. In 1853 he confessed to having slaughtered several of them together with their youngest children while transporting them to a presumably better life in the nearby cities of Santander and Ourense, but persistently defended his innocence. He himself was a mere victim of evil’s will; his inclination to vice was nothing but the result of a family curse that turned him into a wolf, he claimed. He was pronounced guilty of nine murders, acquitted of four, and sentenced to death by garrotte. A couple of years later, Queen Isabel II commuted his sentence to life imprisonment to allow doctors to study his clinical case as lycophilia.

The werewolf, or ‘lobishome’ as he was referred to in northwest Galicia, was Manuel Blanco Romasanta, Spain’s first documented serial killer. The atrocity of his crimes won him a place in the pantheon of 19th century notoriety next to Jack the Ripper and others. Manuel Blanco Romasanta, became widely known as the Werewolf of Allariz, or most commonly as the Tallow Man, for he would commodify the fat he extracted from his devoured victims as high-quality soap. Legends surrounding him have been amassed into an amalgam of genuine historical research, folklore and pseudo-history. And yet, there seem to be more mystery to his enigmatic story…

Born in 1806 in the village of O’Requeiro of the province of Ourense in Galicia, Manuel, son of Miguel Blanco and Maria Romasanta, was baptised and raised as a girl for the first six years of his life. According to recent forensic evidence, he lived with a rare intersexuality syndrome, formerly coined as female pseudo-hermaphroditism. Manuel was in fact Manuela. He possessed female reproductive anatomy but because of her intersexual state, she secreted an inordinate amount of male hormones that led her to undergo a process of virilisation.

Laia Abril tackles this puzzling possibility in her most recent photobook produced in collaboration with her creative partner Ramon Pez for Editorial RM, entitled Lobismuller. The tale of the lobishome who ended being a lobismuller (‘woman-wolf’) is revisited under this novel perspective.

In line with Abril’s previous projects, Lobismuller rests on a pastiche of documentary photography, archival sources, fictional reconstruction and a unique brand of folklorish journalism that also incessantly explores the interplay between image and text. The story oscillates between morbid criminal records, a gothic darkness and a loosely Thomas Hardy-inspired realism of rural hamlets, famine and impoverishment. Neutral and austere in tone, it invokes the modes of straightforward documentary and carries the aura of a vintage object. Multiple narrative threads are brought together to form a confluence of myth, witchcraft and science, one typical of an era that can be described as the crossroads between the twilight of superstition and the awakening of great rationality. Amidst this pastoral iconography, semiotics and symbolic connotations of the landscape in regards to the wolf-tale and to gender are present: from the rugged stone villages to the inhospitable Celtic forests; from the red-tainted inserts of remedies and spells to the howling of wolves under the full moon and the river tides; from the blood cells of the helpless victims to the underground world of catacombs, uteruses and human souls… All this alongside a text that punctuates the identity shifting aspect of the protagonist: man and woman, masculine and feminine, religious and womaniser, falsifier of love letters – at once bucolic and refined, feared and demonised.

As we descend into the universe of Lobismuller, we cannot help but wonder what the book is really about since it is practically impossible to categorise such an assemblage. The various clues gradually push the limits of narration and form to examine uneasy yet intimate realities of sexuality, akin to those Abril has narrated in Thinspiration, The Epilogue and Tediousphilia or in On Abortion (the first chapter of A History of Misogyny). From the first invisible chapter of the book on the murderer, through to the second focussing on the apparition of the wolf and the reconstruction of the crimes, to the more neutral and scientifically engendered approach of the third and final section, the line of enquiry takes on a dramatic crescendo of query and menace.

Similar to the veneration of wolves in Galicia, Romasanta’s case is a prelude to the media frenzy surrounding well-documented psychopaths of the Industrial Age. For a long time the police were incapable of catching the suspect that plagued their investigators with the eventual trial lasting several months and a subsequent transcript that covered more than two thousand pages. Thanks to journalists being able to visit Romasanta’s jail cell extensive media coverage was attracted both in Spain and abroad, bestowing a frenzy of notoriety to the condemned legend. What’s more, Romasanta’s activity took place between 1830 and 1850s, literally during the advent of photographic technology and culture. This person existed before the invention of Alphonse Bertillon’s anthropometry and mug shots that three decades later would epitomise visual identity, and bestow upon the camera apparatus means of power and control.

Yet unmediated by the lens, Romasanta’s image lies encrypted. When the photographic record is absent, speculation and imagination is what remains. To compensate for this absence and to conjure up the elusive identity, Abril imbues her project with illustrations, scientific collages and fragments of bodies. When it comes to humanising Romasanta, her pictures appear veiled in light and contourless, as if trying to glimpse of the world after a long night of insomnia. When narration enters the terrain of the wolf, film ends up blurred, image-less, with no beginnings and no end. Our protagonist remains faceless. This is the most apt solution in order to address the psychological complexity of a character existing beyond definition; beyond definition for the measures of his or her time, let alone for a rural society plagued with superstitions; beyond definition for the very character itself. Both back then and today.

After all, history has always been male. Male in every aspect: writers, myths, appropriations and recreations. Maleness is conceived here as the solid, substantial consciousness of being that Sartre once famously defined. Non-male (understood as embracing any identity beyond the realm of male) emerges as an amorphous, identity-less object (an object not devoid of identity but needless of it) – a ‘twilight zone’, like the very forests Abril visits to reconstruct the steps of this particular murderer. Previously defined as the Other, but even further than this established Other, Manuel and Manuela, inhabits a grey area where facts fail. In the museum of relics that history has become today, this state of the unknown finds itself at its best. As the waters stagnate at the end of the book’s narrative, as the collages and reconstructions of old archives lead to new readings, this mash-up of confounding evidence manifests itself as a naturalised condition – a reminder perhaps of the core identity that used to exist once upon a time before it was oppressively canonised under history’s masculine biases.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Laia Abril

Natasha Christia is a writer, curator and educator based in Barcelona. 

Top 10

Photobooks of 2016

Selected by Tim Clark

An annual tribute to the most exceptional photobook releases from the year that was – selected by our Editor in Chief.

1. Gregory Halpern: ZZYZX

Once the hype subsides, and you let Gregory Halpern’s images bathe you in glorious California sunlight, it’s clear to see why ZZYZX was named Photobook of the Year at The Paris Photo–Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Awards. MACK’s production is sumptuous and as far as photography goes Halpern’s is of the highest order.

The book takes us on a journey, starting at the desert east of Los Angeles, across the city and up to the Pacific Ocean but seen through the filter of Halpern’s ineffable vision, it is in fact more akin to somnambulation. Images depict odd characters and quiet moments – things observed, rendered through description and suggestion – which on accumulation build up a picture of a sort of Babylon on the brink of collapse. With an untold narrative, contained but concealed, we slowly feel the burning desire for a place; a dreamed-of place since, as Italo Calvino one wrote, “desires are already memories”.

2. Edmund Clark and Crofton Black: Negative Publicity
Aperture/Magnum Foundation

Part research document, part exhibition catalogue and part dossier, Negative Publicity presents a complex and multi-layered reflection on the CIA’s programme of ‘extraordinary rendition’. Clark has turned his camera to spaces and surfaces that contain a hidden, violent tension, those which stand in for the countless people who have disappeared into a mysterious prison network – the vanishing point for the law. Yet no drama is pictured here, just the drama of a picture. Collaborating with counter-terrorism expert Crofton Black, he has paired images and redacted documents to interrogate the nature of contemporary warfare and invisible mechanisms of state control. A book that really matters.

3. Sara-Lena Maierhofer: Dear Clark; Portrait of a Con Man
Drittel Books

Sara-Lena Maierhofer has made it her business to tell the tale of a real-life imposter who went by the name of Clark Rockefeller, among other personas, having passed himself off as a scion of the wealthy family. Dear Clark pieces together remnants of his life, through material such as birth certificates, brain scans and family photographs alongside images that speak to key themes of multiplicity and transformation. The book’s material qualities are almost akin to installation with design touches like tipped-in images that perfectly heighten the searching quality of the project. Reality and fantasy, fact and fiction are masterfully at play here as Maierhofer makes tremendous art out of deception and the corrosive effects of lies.

4. Michael Hoppen Gallery: Evidence Case File
Guiding Light

This richly illustrated, cleverly designed book offers a small but brilliant insight into the collection of reknown photography dealer Michael Hoppen. In parallel to The Image as Question: An Exhibition of Evidential Photography, recently on display at the eponymous London gallery, it sets out to disturb the big claims of photography as ‘record’ or ‘proof’. A judicious selection of works harks back to the medium’s 19th century origins and also includes images from 20th century stalwarts as well as contemporary artists. The book empties images of their original evidential function and reconceptualises them in a new context and in a new time. Questioning what a ‘fact’ is a well-trodden area of investigation yet the presentation, editing, sequence and paper choices are very well-measured and all equally important to the publication as various parts separately. Rewards the curious.

5. Laia Abril: Lobismuller
Editorial RM/Images Vevey

Laia Abril is continually on the up and the photobook has always been an essential part of her output. Just recently-released, Lobismuller sees the Catalan artist produce a meditation in photography and text upon Spain’s first documented serial killer. The Werewolf of Allariz, known as Manuel Blanco Romasanta was originally named Manuela since it was initially believed he was a woman. This central figure was also dubbed the ‘Soapmaker’, owing to his habit of using the fat of victims to produce high-quality soap. Gender issues, psychology, landscape, mythology and folklore… the mesmerising story is wrapped upon layer of exquisite literary narrative. Between each image and each piece of text, a creepy affinity can be established, demonstrating Abril’s fluidity between medium and genre, which has come to characterise her practice.

6. Todd Hido: Intimate Distance

This is a lavish monograph befitting one of the most influential US photographers. Todd Hido’s unique brand of cinematic spectatorship is surveyed en masse in Intimate Distance, bringing together twenty-five years of photographs full of substance and thickness of atmosphere. The book tracks the development of a career via Hido’s overlapping motifs and preoccupations: disarming nudes, smudged landscapes and interiors or housing lit up as if glowing chambers, inviting us to consider his world-as-image and rethink his oeuvre from a fresh perspective. The need to know oneself and the fear of self-knowing find their beautiful expression here. His is an art of longing.

7. Francesca Catastini: The Modern Spirit is Vivisective

“Knowledge is not made for understanding, it is made for cutting,” reads the Michel Foucault quote that appears in the postscript to Francesca Catastini’s The Modern Spirit is Vivisective. It serves as a useful coda for considering the work. True to its title, this handsome book is an investigation into the process of studying human anatomy, combining the artist’s own photographs with vernacular images of old anatomy lessons, illustrations from Renaissance manuals, complemented with scientific, literary, and philosophical texts. Using chapters as its organising system – On Looking, On Canon Lust, On Touching, On Cutting, On Discovering – the book reveals a great capacity for sequencing images, and the possibility to conceive of them as a form of literature.

8. David Fahti: Wolfgang

Gathered on the pages of David Fahti’s Wolfgang are black and white photographs sprinkled with quotations from Wolfgang Pauli, a pioneer of quantum physics also held responsible for a large number of unexplainable failures of equipment at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland. Countless accidents, surprises and flashes of unlikely beauty and absurd humour work to conjure up Pauli’s omnipresence despite his absence in the images. Skinnerboox enlisted celebrated book designer Ramon Pez to step in and around the project and the production is all the better for it. A sum of its wonders; art, design, photography, science and history collide and fuse together to powerful effect.

9. Tito Mouraz: The House of The Seven Women
Dewi Lewis Publishing

Misty forests, bemused animals, brooding portraits and delipidated out-houses are just some of the gothic-infused imagery on display in Tito Mouraz’s The House of The Seven Women. They are visual elements invoked to give material form to a myth of the Beira-Alta region of Portugal, where the photographer was born and raised – that of a house believed to be haunted by the ghosts of seven sisters, including one witch. Strange happenings were said to occur on the occasion of a full moon, namely the women would fly from their balcony to a tree opposite and seduce passers by. An eerie and enigmatic mood piece, the work translates brilliantly to book form, classical and full of craft.

10. Adam Golfer: A House Without a Roof
Booklyn Press

The complicated histories of founding the state of Israel and the subsequent violence and displacement of Palestinians as a result of military occupation serve as the subject for this debut book from photographer Adam Golfer. A House Without a Roof draws on his own personal past and familial connections to the place to form an interesting, first person perspective while foregoing any conclusion about its troubled present. This is not easily reducible or categorisable work and Golfer deftly blends Internet-sourced imagery, archival material and extensive use of text with his photographs of the ongoing conflict, as seen at ground level. At least, it transmits the disorienting sense of an outsider locating oneself within a historic ‘home’, constructed through both real and imagined narratives. 

Tim Clark is a curator, writer and editor. Since 2008 he has been Editor in Chief and Director at 1000 Words Photography Magazine. Previously Associate Curator at Media Space, The Science Museum in London, exhibitions he worked on included Julia Margaret Cameron: Influence and Intimacy (2015) and Gathered Leaves: Photographs by Alec Soth (2015-2018), a major, mid-career touring retrospective. He has also organised many exhibitions independently, most recently Peter Watkins: The Unforgetting at Webber Gallery (2017) and Rebecoming: The Other European Travellers at Flowers Gallery (2014), featuring works he commissioned by Tereza Zelenkova, Virgilio Ferreira, Lucy Levene and Henrik Malmstrom. Together with Greg Hobson he has curated Photo Oxford 2017, which featured numerous solo presentations by artists such as Edgar Martins, Mariken Wessels, Martin Parr and Sergei Vasiliev and Arkady Bronnikov from The Russian Criminal Tattoo Archive among others. His writing has appeared in FOAMTIME LightboxThe TelegraphThe Sunday TimesPhotoworks and The British Journal of Photography, as well as in exhibition catalogues and photobooks. He is also a visiting lecturer on the MA in Photography at NABA Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti Milano.

Susana Vargas


Editorial RM

In the 1930s and 40s, the newspaper photographer Weegee (Arthur Fellig) exposed hundreds, if not thousands, of sheets of film of suspects detained by police emerging from police wagons into the brunt of his flashbulbs. While a majority of the arrested attempt to evade his camera and hide their identities with hats or handkerchiefs, one group seem to enjoy the presence of a camera smiling and posing for his camera like starlets – I am speaking of his photographs of transvestites. Susana Vargas’ new book Mujercitos from Editorial RM explores a similar phenomenon across the border in the world of Mexican transvestites as they appeared in the pages of the infamous Mexican weekly periodical Alarma!.

The term ‘mujercitos’, was coined by Alarma!’s Editor in Chief as a synonym for an ‘effeminate man’ and mujercitos were the subject of 286 stories that ran in the periodical between 1963 and 1986 – nearly one article per month. It is not often clear from the texts why the men have been detained but the implication is criminalisation for ‘deception’ – for being attractive on the streets and by extension of the publication, into the homes of the majority of ‘straight’ readers of Alarma!. These stories play both sides of the straight/gay divide at once celebrating their femininity and inviting a homoerotic response in the viewer to the mujercitos and yet condemning them as ‘degenerates’ or ‘perverts’.

Regardless, in most articles the mujercitos do not belie their femininity due to the camera’s presence or detainment. As the book’s editor Susana Vargas speculates, instead they show it off, aware of their image and momentarily taking control of the spectacle as a small act of resistance to the country’s homophobia. Like the transvestite in Weegee’s photo who daintily lifts her skirt as she descends from the wagon to the sidewalk, mujercitos turn the camera from a tool of condemnation into one of empowerment.

—Jeffrey Ladd

All images courtesy of Editorial RM. © Potros Editores, S.A. of C.V. and Alarma!