Visual Culture
The Photograph That Showed Us What Nuclear Destruction Could Look Like
Atomic Cloud Rises Over Nagasaki, Japan. Photo by Lieutenant Charles Levy, 1945, via Wikimedia Commons.

Atomic Cloud Rises Over Nagasaki, Japan. Photo by Lieutenant Charles Levy, 1945, via Wikimedia Commons.

“I too have a Nuclear Button,” United States President Donald Trump wrote in a recent tweet directed at North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un. “But it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”
As such public tensions continue to ratchet up the threat of a future nuclear war, one iconic photograph from World War II endures as a frightening reminder of the devastating force of weapons of mass destruction.
The photograph, taken on August 9th, 1945, shows a 45,000-foot-tall mushroom cloud erupting over Nagasaki, Japan, in the wake of an atomic bomb. The explosion came just days after the detonation of the world’s first deployed atomic bomb, codenamed “Little Boy,” which was dropped by the U.S. on Hiroshima, killing an estimated 140,000 people. Three days, later, this second atomic bomb (“Fat Man”) claimed the lives of nearly 80,000 people in Nagasaki. (These figures don’t take into account long term radiation effects that have persisted for decades.)
Twenty-six-year-old lieutenant Charles Levy captured the photograph of the devastation of Nagasaki with his personal camera while aboard the B-29 aircraft The Great Artiste, an observation plane that flew near the strike plane Bockscar to record the power of the blast. And it’s fortunate that Levy did. According to the book Critical Assembly, a physicist with a high-speed Fastax camera had originally been scheduled to capture the explosion from the camera plane, Big Stink, but while gearing up he accidentally grabbed a second life raft—instead of a parachute—and as a result was forced to remain back at the airfield. Further, the camera plane didn’t make it to the meeting point on time to join the other two planes on the mission. As a result Levy, the bombardier on The Great Artiste, snapped what became one of the most defining images of the explosion. (Levy was originally scheduled to fly on Bockscar but his crew switched planes after a last-minute complication—otherwise, one could reason, this image may not exist.)
Levy’s image shows a giant plume of smoke and debris erupting from the earth and piercing through the clouds, reaching over eight miles into the sky. It’s an unprecedented visualization of this degree of military force. As the mushroom head spouts in a puff from the pillar of smoke, the explosion appears to have taken on a life of its own—a fearsome button that can never be unpressed.
As Levy told the Free Lance-Star newspaper at the time, the explosion was “sharp and brighter than double daylight itself inside [the] plane.” Afterward, he says: “We saw this big plume climbing up, up into the sky. It was purple, red, white, all colours – something like boiling coffee. It looked alive…we were all plenty scared.”
Prior to the explosion, U.S. President Harry S. Truman told Japan that if it did not surrender to U.S. terms, they “may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.” This photograph shows that his threat was no exaggeration.
According to TIME, photographs that pictured the bomb’s devastation on the ground were censored by U.S. officials, and yet Levy’s image of the explosion itself circled the globe. It was the only image to emerge that would show the massive cloud in its entirety; it also showed the explosion as if it occurred in a vacuum, a God-like use of force and modern science that transcended the earth and penetrated the heavens and ultimately, led to the United States’ victory and Japanese surrender. (Though there was a small portion of Japan’s supreme war council that wanted to surrender after the first bomb.) It didn’t show the over three-mile radius of carnage back on earth, or capture the unbelievable loss of human life.
Instead, in its simplicity—a celestial white shape isolated against a contrasting grey sky—the explosive form Levy captured would emerge as a motif of American power and a symbol of the dawning atomic age. It would be replicated endlessly throughout popular culture—from t-shirts to films to the recent Apple emoji that illustrates a “blown mind” by portraying a brain emitting a mushroom cloud through the crown of a bright yellow head.
It’s worth noting that today’s nuclear weapons are more powerful than the two atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, often by thousands of multiples. Levy’s indelible image of the mushroom cloud spread through culture as a somewhat superficial emblem of victory and power, as proof that military and science intelligence could accomplish this degree of force and totality—but it obscures the very extreme human toll that resulted from this force.
Molly Gottschalk is Artsy’s Features Producer.