Bombs Away

When I was little we used to “play war” which meant the neighborhood kids would roam the neighborhood with fake guns and hide behind bushes and sheds to surprise ambush their friends shouting “Bombs away!” or “Bang!” or “Boom: you’re dead!” That was the 1950’s and 60’s when the true war fears had caused the USA to build bomb shelters in the basement of schools to protect the citizenry from the nuclear bombs of the Soviet Union. So this life experience probably gave me extra special qualifications for illustrating an article on how to tell your kids about war. It was now 1987 and still kids learned about these kinds of things from their parents, not from the internet or even television.

It was mid summer when I got a phone call from art director Nancy Gordon at Working Mother Magazine. We met at the magazine’s offices and discussed the concept – how does a mother teach her kids about war without making them overly fearful. The solution we came up with was to use toys to illustrate children surrounded by bombs and aircraft. Nancy provided a rough page layout and the text for the article.

Fortunately for this guy making photograms there were still colorful plastic toys available in the shape of warplanes and bombs (how sweet!) In the late 80’s the cold war hysteria has subsided but had not disappeared. We still were mortal enemies with the evil Soviets.  I returned to the studio to do my homework: read the article and think. Then I went to the toy store to get my props: implements of destruction and some small child figures. Looking back on this I realize how strange that was, but at the time, it was work and I was excited to have a chance to make photo illustration using photograms. I found boy and girl figures small enough to fit inside a 4×5 enlarger, and a bucket of warplanes made of colorful translucent plastic, and even some small plastic colorful bombs! “Boom you’re dead!” was revived in my memories.

Into the darkroom, turn on the fans and the stereo, load the Cibachrome processor and warm up the color enlarger. Start to play. At it’s best this kind of work did seem like play. I would have some music going, close the door and start arranging the props. Re-read my notes from meeting with the art director and see what happens.  I knew the rough dimensions of the image and set up the easel under the enlarger to show those proportions. Nancy had requested that the image feel optimistic(a challenge considering the subject) and the children appear larger than the bombs and plans, perfect for my photogram techniques. I put the boy and girl toys in the enlarger and then focused the image on the easel. I placed a sheet of glass over the easel, raised slightly from the surface allowing me to slide a sheet of Cibachrome under the glass to make the exposure. Keep in mind that this has to be done in total darkness. When printing in color there is no safelight. You must work in total darkness and special techniques are needed to make it possible to arrange things accurately. I spread out some bombs and warplanes on the glass and turned on the enlarger. Some tweaking here and there, moving the child figures closer to each other, arranging the bombs and planes around them and I was ready to make a print. I produced a series of 11’x14″ prints to choose from.

And Nancy responded with the cropping indicated and a comment written on the protective sleeve, and a layout with the shot in place. Looking back and seeing that Francine Prose – the accomplished novelist – wrote this piece!

you can also see my “filing system” on the label on the bottom. It works so far. Knowing the date, client, and invoice number I can look up the file and find any transparencies that I might have used (no transparencies for this picture.)

The final image was chosen from the variations I provided:

Nuclear War final

The contract and invoice show the fee was $350 for one-time print usage. Those were the days!

While researching this blog post I found the art director Nancy Gordon at Zest Magazine in Maine, and it was a joy to reconnect. I was also amazed to see that Working Mother is still being published. We have all survived a lot of changes in the business.