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18 Mar 2018 1:46
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  •   Home > News > International

    Recalling Cold War-era fears through photography

    From nuclear bunkers to the plane graveyard, photographer Phillip Buehler revisits the many remnants of Cold War-era warfare.

    From nuclear bunkers to the plane graveyard, photographer Phillip Buehler revisits the many remnants of Cold War-era warfare.

    More than half-a-century after the world recovered from the brink of nuclear Armageddon, photographer Phillip Buehler finds himself thinking about it all over again as US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un "rattle sabres".

    "[Trump is] calling him little rocket man and talking about how much bigger his button is and … he's going to rain 'fire and fury' on them like they've never seen before, and we haven't heard this kind of language in 40-50 years," Mr Buehler told the ABC.

    As the threat of nuclear war once again became a thinkable reality last year, Mr Buehler's new book (Un)thinkable revisits the many remnants of Cold War-era warfare through a collection of striking photographs of B-52 Bombers and missiles.

    But the book starts with one of Mr Buehler's first memories of the Cold War — a photograph of the fallout shelter sign that is still displayed in his grade school.

    "You know every school had one of those fallout shelter signs on it, and we would make a trip down to the fallout shelter so we knew where it was," he said.

    "Duck and cover was pretty scary because they said if you saw light, duck under your desk, and we weren't quite sure why.

    "But later, growing up, you knew what that was — we were at risk of nuclear annihilation with the Russians."

    'More about hope than saving us'

    About 400,000 fallout shelters were installed in the United States, Mr Buehler said, and many of them can still be seen in schools and public buildings.

    "And it really was more about hope than it was about actually saving us if anything happened," Mr Buehler said.

    "But they were everywhere. I kind of knew when we grew up that … down by the church is one, down the hill is another one, over in the school is another one, so if you are anywhere away from home, run for shelter."

    Mr Buehler's childhood also coincided with the space race, and growing up he wanted to be an astronaut like John Glenn.

    "I guess going to the moon was a more positive thing than it was, we're making these missiles so we can shoot them at the Russians," he said.

    "We kind [of] faked out a bit, the space race really was the arms race."

    Mr Buehler's project takes the audience from his childhood in New York to Arizona, and from bunkers to the plane graveyard.

    The Aircraft Maintenance and Regeneration Group at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona was a place he always wanted to visit, and is home to decommissioned planes from decades ago.

    'Sheer creativity' with 'horrible destructive powers'

    These planes include B-52s that flew over Vietnam or were on round-the-clock missions for the Strategic Air Command, F-4 fighter jets that were in dogfights over Vietnam, and F-14s once deployed on nuclear aircraft carriers, he wrote in his book.

    "So I got to go, I had to go through a vetting process with the military, they had to check me out," he said.

    "And then I got to climb in the B-52s and all of these machines and it was, I guess the word is awesome in both the positive and negative.

    "Awesome in the sheer creativity and imagination that made these machines, and then awesome in the horrible destructive power they have."

    Mr Buehler said it was quite moving to be there, and each plane still had details that told its own story.

    "The planes still had markings on them from the Vietnam War or from the strategic air command, nose art, either pretty girls or Uncle Sam holding bombs in his hand," he said.

    "It's so much history and so many lives in this one place. So much money spent."

    The 'forgotten' past

    With the Berlin Wall being taken down and the Cold War ending almost 20 years ago, Mr Buehler said the black and white films of mushroom clouds were almost all people remembered.

    "There's probably only a few survivors of Hiroshima left," he said.

    "It really is forgotten."

    But Mr Buehler said millions of lives were again at stake and he felt sorry for the South Koreans "living under the shadow right now".

    At a recent exhibition in a New York gallery where Mr Buehler exhibited the photos, he also had an installation of a "hotline phone" that played recordings, juxtaposing John F Kennedy's address on the Cuban missile crisis and Mr Trump threatening Kim Jong-un.

    "JFK [was] being very diplomatic, powerful, reasonable, even caring about the Cuban people and talking about a better future for all of us," he said.

    "And then you cut to Donald Trump [saying] 'we're going to rain fire and fury down on you', and calling him little rocket man … it's like schoolyard taunting.

    "I listened to Kennedy and I feel like we've got it under control and we came out of that.

    "I'm not so sure that what's going to happen if [Mr Trump and Mr Kim are] actually going to meet and what comes out of it. I think we're going to be exactly where we were before."

    © 2018 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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