The Black Hole review on SMBHmag

Review by Barry W Hughes –

We had the pleasure of reviewing Janire Najera‘s work from The Black Hole in Dublin at PhotoIreland Festival 2013. The Spanish photojournalist and curator has studied Journalism in Madrid, and Documentary Photography at the University of Wales, Newport, so when it comes to finding a story that not only talks of community and a shared sense of history Najera is very well qualified. In this instance,The Black Hole references these things, but also brings the additional element of irony (political and tragic).

What is ironic about the story? The Black Hole was a “unique military surplus store and recycler of ‘nuclear’ waste located in Northern New Mexico. Nestled in the dramatic landscape of the Jemez Mountains, the small town of Los Alamos feels like the perfect encapsulation of Middle America. And yet, behind the manicured lawns and picket fences, hidden in the canyons and mesas of this ancient Indian tribal land are the operational buildings and testing sites of The Los Alamos National Laboratory.”

The store’s founder was a former Los Alamos National Laboratory machinist Ed “Atomic Ed” Grothus, who had first arrived in 1949, “During what Ed considered to be an unjust Vietnam War he felt no longer able to support the development of nuclear weapons, left the lab becoming one of the most outspoken anti-nuclear protestors of the 20th Century. Over the next four decades he collected a breadth of surplus material from the lab, turning a former grocery store into a Mecca of technological obsolescence.”

When Ed eventually died in 2009, his family met his final wishes by having a weekend liquidation sale in late 2012 “to ensure that as much stock as possible was owned by members of the community rather than being sold as scrap.” So this is the framework in which Najera has placed her story, a story about finding shared joy and togetherness through what are essentially the tools that helped to make weapons of mass destruction in a time when nuclear threat and paranoia prevailed. This is what Ed wanted – to show that fear and science should not be mixed, that there is always another way to find a resolution; that the very idea of making a weapon so powerful is ridiculous, is absurd. And we see this in the work: the objects look ridiculous – antiquated and flimsy, like props from early Sci-Fi movies. While the portraits are of everyday New Mexicans of all ages holding items they’d purchased for pleasure, for practical functions and indeed, for the irony alone. The Cold War and nuclear armageddon might be a thing of the past but we should remember that once the science is applied and technology created, these things can never be unknown. Just like a Black Hole, there is no return.

If you want to see more about the story of Atomic Ed’s campaigning and his store’s place within his community, you really need to see the fantastic short film made to accompany the photographic work. It sets the tone quite well and uses interviews with family and friends to reiterate a genuine sense of idealism and protest.