Engineering & Technology

Yamahata, Yosuke | Twelve Photographs Taken the Day After the Atomic Bombing of Nagasaki

  • A set of fifteen photographs of the aftermath of the atomic bombings of Japan, twelve of which can be attributed to photographer Yosuke Yamahata (1917-1966) and were taken in Nagasaki on August 10th, 1945, the day after the attack. These include the well-known images of a nursing mother, a dead horse by a wagon, a man holding his injured child, a dead woman and child at the Uragami train station, a bandaged woman and child holding rice balls, and a torii still standing in the wreckage. The other three photos form a panorama of a levelled city as seen from across a river with hills in the background. These are not in the same format as the Yamahata photos and it is unclear whether they depict Nagasaki or Hiroshima (though the manuscript note on the back describes the scene as Hiroshima). All of the photos were owned at some point by the same person, who has numbered them and in some cases written short captions on the backs.

    Yamahata was born in Singapore, the son of photographer Shōgyoku Yamahata, who owned the studio G. T. Sun. Yamahata spent his early career employed by his father and in 1940 became a military photographer, working mainly in China and South East Asia. He returned to Japan shortly before the atomic bombing of Hiroshima — travelling through the city by train only the day before — and was near Nagasaki when the second bomb was dropped. Together with the writer Jun Higashi and the painter Eiji Yamada, Yamahata was immediately assigned to document the destruction, and the three travelled by train for twelve hours, arriving at three in the morning. Over the course of the day he took around 119 exposures, the only extensive photographic record of the immediate aftermath of either atomic bombing.

    Recalling this experience seven years later, Yamahata wrote that “the explosion and the fires had reduced the entire city (about four square kilometers) to ashes in a single instant. Relief squads, medical and fire-fighting teams, could do nothing but wait. Only the luck of being in a well-placed air raid shelter could be of any use for survival. Even if the medical and fire-fighting teams from the surrounding areas had been able to rush to the scene, the roads were completely blocked with rubble and charred timber. One had not the faintest idea where the water main might be located, so it would have been impossible to fight the fires. Telephone and telegraph services were suspended; the teams could not contact the outside world for help. It was truly a hell on earth. Those who had just barely survived the intense radiation — their eyes burned and their exposed skin scalded — wandered around aimlessly with only sticks to lean on, waiting for relief. Not a single cloud blocked the direct rays of the August sunlight, which shone down mercilessly on Nagasaki, on that second day after the blast” (Yamahata, “Photographing the Bomb, A Memo”, 1952).

    A few of Yamahatas’ photographs appeared in the Japanese daily Mainichi Shimbun, but the occupying American regime prevented further publication. Yamahata hid the negatives, of which 71 have survived, and clandestine copies began circulating privately, though these were confiscated whenever discovered by US officials (see the album of a US M.P. officer sold at Bonhams NY in June 2014). It was only in 1952, with the removal of restrictions, that Yamahata was able to speak out and share the photos publicly. The provenance of these copies is unclear. The notes are in a typical American hand of the early to mid-20th century, and they may be confiscated copies, or perhaps were purchased later by a visitor to Japan. One is annotated “wrecked house, most are made of wood” as if the writer had some experience of the region. One of the notes on the back of the panoramic set is, “full view of Hiroshima”, and the other reads, “Notice most concrete buildings still standing”, so perhaps these were mailed from someone in Japan to a correspondent back at home in America, to illustrate experiences conveyed in a letter.

  • Japan, [1945].

    15 black and white photographs. 12 of the prints are 142 x 104 mm and have white borders. The remaining 3 (149 x 108 mm), which form a panorama when placed side by side, have been printed without borders..All the photos were numbered at the time in manuscript, identifying the two sequences, the first set running 1-12 and the second 1-3, and 5 also have informative manuscript notes on the backs. All are a little rubbed at the extremities, the three larger photos are slightly creased, one has a small reddish mark on the image, and another has a small spot of a gummy substance like bluetack on the back. Very good condition.