The April sun baked the Utah landscape ten feet above us, but it was cool in the entrance of the abandoned mine. A gentle breeze blew from deep inside the adit. My Geiger counter crackled and I read the dial: one thousand counts per minute, roughly twenty-seven times normal background radiation. It wasn’t just the sun that was making this place hot.
My assistant emerged from the darkness with our guide. Breathless, he looked me straight in the eye and gasped, “You’re not going to believe what I just saw, you’re going to s*** yourself! Do you want to see?”.
He already knew the answer.
It was 1995 when I first saw an autoradiogram. I was a second-year student in the Scientific Photography degree at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and was scouring the university library for inspiration for upcoming assignments. The book “On The Nature Of Things: The Scientific Photography Of Fritz Goro”, caught my eye, a monograph on the work of Fritz Goro, famed scientific photographer for Time-Life.
Looking through the pages, I was astounded by Goro’s incredible vision but one image stood out. It was simple; a rock that had taken its own photograph.
Goro had laid a mineral specimen — cut and polished on one side — upon a sheet of film in complete darkness. The sample hadn’t been just any specimen, however, it was uranium and had taken its own photograph through the energy of its own radioactive decay.
I knew I had to create work of my own. But as a second-year university student, how to create the work was still a mystery at that point.
Although uranium metal has been known since 1789, the discovery that uranium is radioactive, throwing off a constant stream of energetic light and subatomic particles we now know as ionizing radiation, was only revealed in 1898. Radioactivity had long escaped detection because it cannot be perceived by our own senses, only becoming perceptible to our eyes with photographic film. When Goro placed the uranium ore directly on film, the radiation exposed it as if it were visible light — the fundamental ingredient in photographic image creation. The autoradiogram was born.
To me, it looked abstract, otherworldly, like a photograph taken in deep space. I was hooked and became obsessed with nuclear imagery. I knew I had to create work of my own. But as a second-year degree student, how to create the work was a mystery at that point.
While it is relatively simple to obtain or purchase samples of uranium ore, it is extremely dangerous to cut and polish. As a result, the only examples of cut and polished ore are historical samples that remain from the boom era of the 1950s to the 1970s. Through perseverance, I spent the twenty years following my first encounter with Goro’s work acquiring a collection of these historical uranium ore samples. They represent some of the most significant mines of the 20th century; Mi Vida, La Sal, Blue Lizard, Beaverlodge, and Eldorado to name a few.
I had set out to change other people’s understanding of uranium and our connection to materials. But through this journey, I found my own views and understanding challenged.
I created autoradiograms of the samples as I acquired them, just the same way as Goro had 70 years before me: In complete darkness, I would lay down a sheet of film, place the specimen atop the film and leave it to expose for between one to four days. But as I built a catalog of these photographs, how they would be realized was still a mystery. In 2007, I rediscovered an old alternative process from the nineteenth century that would hold the key.
Before the birth of the Atomic Age, uranium was considered a near-worthless metal, but it played an important element in the production of photographic film and prints. Uranium nitrate, a salt of uranium, is extremely reactive with silver halides and when used as a toning agent, created a rich terracotta brown image colour that was a hallmark of the silent film era. But it turned out the salt is also light sensitive. When an aqueous solution is applied to watercolour paper, it becomes a photographic coating itself, akin to cyanotypes and other alternative processes. This process is known commonly as the uranotype. After several years of research and preparation, I began generating prints.
But as I showed friends and colleagues the images, I realized it’s not widely understood that uranium is a metal mined from the ground. There is an entire history of resource extraction, environmental and social impact that was missing from the discussion. I resolved to visit the mines where my samples were taken; if I could photograph them alongside the samples, an exhibition could show the connection between these samples and the regions, and communities they were extracted from.
A grant from the Canada Council For The Arts, a Kickstarter campaign, and the generous contribution from sponsors such as Kodak, gave me the opportunity to take several expeditions. Over the course of three years, I documented mine locations and communities with an 8”x20” ultra-large format camera, a Bronica GS-1 and an Arriflex BL4s 35mm motion picture camera.
In the process, I transported hundreds of pounds of film and equipment from a quarter-mile inside the mines of southern Utah to the Navajo Nation, Saskatchewan, and Port Radium in the Northwest Territories, 30 miles from the Arctic Circle, places that were important economic and strategic centres during the Cold War.
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I had set out to change other people’s understanding of uranium and our connection to materials. But through this journey, I found my own views and understanding challenged. It’s difficult to convey the sense of power and dread these places have. Survivors of the era described a dichotomy: a time of excitement alongside danger, happiness alongside tragedy, millions earned in a fraction of a second, fortunes gained and lost.
But miners faced a significant danger unique to uranium, beyond the physical risk of hard-rock mining. In the 14th century, it was called “Bergsucht” or “mountain disease”. By 1879 it was found to be lung cancer, caused by the emanation of a gas from the ore.
In 1923 that gas was given a name: radon.
Radon is a radioactive, noble gas that is the decay product of uranium. Normally trapped within the rock, as miners tunnel through the ground, radon is released and accumulates in the air inside the mine. It cannot be filtered out and is freely inhaled and exhaled without interaction. However, radon decays into a series of short-lived, highly radioactive elements that rapidly reach equilibrium in an unventilated mine.
These “radon daughters”: bismuth, lead, and polonium, stick to every surface. When inhaled, or if the decay occurs in the lungs, they adhere to the delicate cell lining and deliver a high level of radiation within the first hour. Repeated exposure over the working life of a miner leads to massive, cumulative doses. During the uranium boom of the 20th century, miners’ exposure to radon daughters was often so intense that they could send a Geiger counter off the scale simply by breathing on it after returning to the surface.
Uranium miners experienced up to six times the lung cancer rate of the general population. Silica and dust scar and harden the lungs, resulting in a common affliction for old miners: irreversible, terminal fibrosis of the lungs. Smoking, a common habit during the heyday of the uranium boom, multiplies the lethality of these burdens. It is unknown how many Indigenous miners in both Canada and the US suffered, but evidence suggests high rates of disease.
Traveling through these places, meeting ex-miners, activists, their families, you see this dichotomy repeated. It’s a duality I seek to show in the two opposing sides of the planned exhibition — “Transmutations: Visualizing Matter | Materializing Vision”; that of the people and the landscape in palladiotype and that of the ore itself in uranotype.
There is a danger in a cultural imaginary, the constructs that help form the sense of identity and “meaning” to a community, without images capable of conveying the force of matter in human-material practices. Each of the chosen mediums is tailored to the experience of my exhibition and they push the modern capabilities of these processes. Together, I hope the work helps audiences form an image of material vibrancy that speaks not only to our connection to the power of uranium, its history and impact but in a wider sense, to the issues of renewed extraction of nuclear materials and our impact on this planet and its inhabitants.
In that mine, where decades earlier miners toiled and the sound of dynamite pierced the air, there was silence, broken only by the rasping of respirators and the crackle of our Geiger counters. After several minutes walking, we branched off into what seemed a side tunnel.
Nearing the end, the Geiger counters hissed with radiation, spiking to nearly eleven thousand counts per minute, almost three hundred times normal background radiation levels. In front of us, our flashlights revealed the buttress of an ancient fossilized tree. Most of the trunk and branches had already been extracted, but the base remained when the mine was abandoned.
The petrified buttress embedded in the wall before us hadn’t mineralized into just any rock; it was beautiful, iridescent with flashes of yellow and deep black. It was intensely radioactive. It was uranium.
The “Transmutations: Visualizing Matter | Materializing Vision” online exhibition, limited edition prints, and upcoming exhibition details can be viewed at www.transmutationsproject.com, or for information contact email@example.com.
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