Since 2005, Palmer has returned to Hiroshima and/or Nagasaki each August as part of an evolving, personal engagement with the people and landscapes of these places devastated by the atomic bombings of the Second World War. Unlike most post-conflict documentary, Palmer’s work does not seek out evident ruins but instead replays the narratives of the past in the present, where the technological horror of modern atomic warfare is set against aspects of the Japanese landscape.
There are few physical reminders in Hiroshima and Nagasaki from the time of the atomic bombings, with most now obscured by the sights and sounds of the modern metropolis. During August 2013, Palmer spoke with first and second-generation survivors, working closely with them to locate the few remaining places in the immediate surroundings of the cities that escaped postwar redevelopment. These places remain largely as they were at the time of the bombings; they are places that permit a unique perspective on the landscape but it is a perspective under threat, not only from redevelopment but, poignantly, from being forgotten as survivors grow more elderly and frail.
A ridgeline of low mountains outlines Nagasaki today just as at the time of the bombing and the photographs depict the last few sections of ridgeline that remain unbroken by contemporary structures. These viewpoints, facing in towards the hypocentre, are among the last in the immediate vicinity of Nagasaki from which one can contemplate the past without present-day intrusions. Crucially they are also perspectives from which people would have witnessed the atomic bombing as onlookers. For Palmer, these surrounding vestiges of land are more potent reminders than the official memorial sites but they have been overlooked as sites of memory. A Surrounding Trace seeks out and captures those places and spaces that have simply endured. In one sense these surrounding perspectives represent the closest one can get today to the Nagasaki of then.
In choosing to use a pinhole camera Palmer’s aim was not to document these views in full detail. The landscape appears indistinct, fragile, difficult to perceive, like the past itself. The lack of resolution denies the facticity of photography and the final prints are evocative and impressionistic, making it hard to differentiate between a pinhole image from 1945 and another from 2013. By foregrounding the simple phenomena of the action of light upon a film plane, pinhole echoes the searing light of the bomb that etched inverted, permanent shadows upon the surfaces that remained.