We are used to photographs that unlock information. It is a process of disclosure not unlike a chemical reaction and it unfolds the moment a viewer’s curious gaze falls upon whatever medium carries the content of the image: the emulsion surface, the printed page, the digital screen.
And like a reaction in chemistry, the combination of elements yields a product. Perhaps it starts with the simple naming of things or the actions of the protagonists that the photograph depicts, animal, vegetable or mineral. As bonds break down under the force of looking – between a figure here and an object or location there – the viewer is permitted to concoct a narrative. Within moments the chain of possibilities roars forward with the prodigious velocity of nuclear fission and the image departs from passivity with rampant conceptual energy.
An electron microscope photograph unlocks more information than perhaps we care to acknowledge. It is a species of photography that has made possible nanoscience, where matter is manipulated at the molecular level. Its task is to visualise what macroscopic vision cannot grasp in detail and which conventional science may not even know exists. With discovery being a staple of science, and newness a prerequisite of modern living, penetrative visualisation has the potential to confer celebrity on the microscopic worker at the critical bottom end of evolution. This potential has been realised, even if it is stardom that corroborates Warhol’s 15-minute variety.
Think of those photographs of, say, the dusty particles collected in the crevice of a trouser pocket enlarged 150 times. Images in that genre have been common enough in newspaper supplements and in the pages of books, and now they can be whistled up in seconds on the Web. In them a grand nighttime architecture blooms where strands of hair and threads of downy lint burrow like industrial ducting into softly shaded grey hummocks of crystalline precipitate and between the scurf of discarded skin.
That is the territory of electron microscope photography (also called micrography). Although the lens is routinely turned on subject matter more deserving than a vacated garment – a canine rectum, for instance, or the filter setae of Atlantic krill – the technique has its playful side. It plays to the layman’s desire to be enthralled and disgusted. Yet interest has its limitations; find a tiny, sightless mite thriving in the dust of that pocket fold and, once surprise and fascination pass, distaste firmly closes the portals to further perception.
Nonetheless, high-powered magnification photography, by focusing its sophisticated paraphernalia on the barely seen, presents commonplace things in terms where they become a great spectacle. Pollen spores blossom into startling, beautiful complexity or the geography of a dehydrated cancer cell can be surveyed like a lunar ocean.
It is seldom, however, that an image of this type actually takes the reverse route. That is, that it draws its spectacle into itself, like the great suction and compression that follows the eardrum-splitting detonation of high explosive. And then, holding on to that awesome moment, decelerates to a crawl the process of exposure. When this occurs, it is as if an image locks its spectacle behind innocuous commonplaceness, choosing its own moment to dispense significance.
The photograph made in connection with research by senior American geologists Earle McBride and Dane Picard accomplishes this effect. The two scientists subjected to close examination by micrography specimens of sand they had collected on a Normandy beach in 1988. To the untrained eye, the same one that marvels at the generously magnified fluff cluster or the hairline crack in metal that could pass for a view of the Grand Canyon, the sample, once photographed, remains resolutely unexceptional, regardless of the scale.
A grain of sand typically measures a fraction of millimetre. A handful satisfies the generic expectation of a dun-coloured yellowish (well, sandy), particulate, glistening, roughly homogeneous mass. Looked at more closely, the generous, pick ’n’ mix variety of putative origins becomes apparent. But the eye needs help to distinguish the different progenies, and that is the role of micrography.
The assumption of uniformity soon dissolves in the face of the diversity within natural sediments alone. Add the deposits of algae and shell-life or the matter of granular inconsistency, and the common man’s meagre idea of sand soon seems frivolous. What the geologists’ saw, however, put their own informed prediction to task. Translucent spheres like badly blown glass balls jostled lookalikes of enamel-shiny dental fragments and flat-sided shards of shattered vessel-like containers. Muddled in with the sea-worn smooth grains were others, elongated or flattened, sub-angular or just plain pointed. Also in the mix were nuggets that were truly irregular, darker than the rest and gnarled and brutish.
A scatter of random things: so far, so unspectacular, a state of affairs which invigorates this technology. Text imprinted on the images puts everyman in his place. We are not the small looking at the huge, at a distant planet, for example, seen through a hustle of intervening asteroids; in this instance the ‘X75’ marks the observer’s spot, and we are the huge investigating the miniscule.
Scientists expect to find hardwearing silica in silt and gravel; they do not expect tiny shreds of magnetic iron or beads of glass less than a millimetre in diameter. But McBride and Picard found both and, by their quantity and concentration, recognised them as intruders in the beach ecology. Metals, unlike minerals, do not occur naturally in the sandy mix of worked-over shorelines. Their source was not nature but history.
At this level of magnification and beyond, vision descends into the deep, monochromatic inner space of the beach sample. Isolated by the process into silver-shaded, strangely spectral formality, the least native shapes stand out from their backgrounds like exhibits in a museum display case illustrated in an old textbook. Are they the miniaturised, Dinky Toy version of archaeological finds? Primitively decorated tools, perhaps, of a minuscule Stone Age settlement.
When interrogating the expansive blackness, interpretation can slip into fantasy. Does time shrink and put away the material remains from passing eras in order to make room for what is still to come? Is nature excessively house-proud as well as quirkily practical? For, in their modesty, these photographs seem content to exist within speculations and behind the subterfuges that viewers invent to crack their inscrutability. Where particles gain definition, their surfaces and edges appear too used, too fragmentary of a larger whole and too fissured to be granular sand.
The image’s reliance on monochrome can strike a modern culture that feasts incessantly on colour as archaic, demure and even as a badge of eccentricity. The unsought anachronism arises not because science disdains the capricious relativity of mechanical colour (in the way art historians once mistrusted polychrome transparencies as illustrations to their lectures and discussed paintings projected in black and white), but because information about colour is not traceable at these deep focal depths. The resulting enigma inadvertently adopted by existence deep down, another characteristic of nature going about its business, seems safe from being cracked, for just as distaste is an obstacle to perception (and electron microscope photography is vulnerable to this barrier), so is clam-like reticence.
The geographical region of Normandy is not small; it occupies five per cent of France’s mainland territory. Its coast is correspondingly extensive, from above Dieppe at one, northerly extreme to the sheltered beaches near Granville at the other. The clue to a mighty in-breath of great events within McBride and Picard’s image comes with the tip-off that the beach from which the sand samples were scooped was known operationally as Omaha in 1944 by Allied forces gathering on the coast of southern England.
Come D-Day, it would be one of five landing points on a 50-mile stretch of shore earmarked for invasion. Across the Channel, Erwin Rommel, commanding the German defences, had assigned the 7000-yard stretch of shingle and sand a more prosaic description. He intended it to be a killing zone and 30 tonnes of ammunition had been moved up to positions in its vicinity.
The Allies’ invasion planners, sand-bagged into ministries in Whitehall, already had their samples from the Omaha beach. Grains of sand had been gathered by stealth (and transported in waterproof sheaths) by two British servicemen whose midget submarines had crept across the Channel’s grey winter water at night. Examination by sight, book and microscope confirmed that the beach was secure ground for a strategy to land 34,000 men, mostly Americans, their tanks and equipment before noon and then 25,000 more before evening, with 4000 vehicles. The sand would not swallow them.
Metal debris started to hit the beach before the invaders began arriving around 6.30am. A half-hour naval bombardment preceded the landing with the intention of leaving the German defenders either stunned or destroyed by its ferocity. US planes dropped 1300 tonnes of explosive ordnance. Fires were started; destruction followed; and smoke trailed across the landing zone. The assault on the nerves and the senses had started that would not ease all day. By and large, these tirades fell beyond their targets which included the well-placed German emplacements.
What fell with deadly consequences on the Americans once landing commenced was a gale of destructive firepower. There were 12 German strongpoints overlooking the beach and three times that number of pillboxes manned by gun crews. As landing craft approached the shore along the 7000-yard width of Omaha, the infantrymen inside heard over the roar of the waves bullets ring against the bow ramps; when the soldiers disembarked into the fast-running lateral current, every German battery on the chalk bluffs opened up. For the troops, the only way was forward: chances of survival shortened with every hesitation in filthy, oily, bloody seawater.
That same path was thick with the trajectories of bullets and the peal of machine-gun fire. Veterans remember the rocket-launching ‘Screaming Mimis’ and the sound like ripping cloth emitted by the terrifying MG42. ‘Hitler’s Zipper’, the Americans called it: the Maschinengewehr 42 could unleash hundreds of rounds each minute. Hot metal streaked with tremendous gas-powered speed across a distance of 1000 yards or more. Enfilades of deadly firing pumped into wave upon wave of invading troops from enemy positions at the furthest extents of the gentle crescent curve of the beach. It is no wonder sand vitrified into beads of glass as shells fell hot into the ground.
Allied casualties occurred mostly in the first few hours when the landing zone became 200 yards of congested open land, with no bomb craters for shelter as the second wave of assault troops joined the increasingly exhausted first. Units were blown off course by the current and delayed on the sand by defences that the opening salvoes had failed to silence. Engineers fought to land vehicles and breach obstacles under constant fire; troops out of place regrouped to force their way to the safety of the seawall; warring armies battled with the wearying sensory assault and the desire to survive. As the 18-hour day ended, land was penetrated with two bridgeheads established on the bluffs. And 4500 men had died, with the Allied side sustaining by far the greater number of losses.
The shoreline is now clear of visible reminders of war. In the 60 years since Rommel organised his killing zone, engineers and beachcombers have picked the area clean of the rusting detritus of tanks, trucks, landing craft and ships; of mortars, machine guns, rifles and ammunition belts; and of battledress, helmets, insignia and corpses. Some adjacent roads proclaim the liberators to every passing motorist and direction seeker, and 172 acres are set aside for a cemetery where 9000 headstones await the celestial reveille in orderly rows.
To permit life to go on, the events of war are compartmentalised, shrunk to a patch of land and accorded their tributes. A monument on Omaha beach was dedicated in the anniversary year of 2004; three groups of simple steel structures that may be wings, or waves, or highly stylised figures lean into implied forward motion towards the seawall. The sculpture is planted in the sand; maybe each morning the sea delivers it up afresh for another watery assault in the interest of liberty.
Yet since around dawn on 6 June 1944, the bloody events that raged over the beach compiled their own memorial. For, as McBride and Picard’s photograph attests, the actual story laid itself into the raking stage of this particular theatre of war, and dug itself in. The tangible connections with history rolled, unseen, back, forth and more deeply within the beach face on every subsequent tide and shaped by wind, enfolding and hushing the violence into the chilling banality of a world that keeps turning.
The photograph portrays a modern reliquary proofed against sectarian veneration. What differentiates this memorial from the steel neighbour above is the absence of consolation, the refutation of transcendence. Above ground, the devastated living seek reassurance that the sacrifice of the dead was selfless and noble: ‘For your tomorrow, we gave our today’. As higher thoughts ascend, below in the swash zone of the beach or the trough of the shingle, snips of shell cases lie as shattered as the bodies they shattered. Their killing power gone, they become repositories of memory, tiny UXBs that allow the beach to cling to the true memory of one long day.
Thus the beach has ingested the hard, redly oxidising fact. It majestically manages a respectful, measured exhalation of memory. Every so often, a thought-grenade loosens its pin to ask if, among these fragments, did any rip through a soldier on its way to rest in the sand? Deepen magnification to 700 the power of human sight and does a speck of US Ranger repose still in the fine grooves etched into the skin of a fragment of shell casing?
The samples make plain (and the photograph is evidence) that the beach was itself a casualty. To this day it carries within its own body, like an old soldier, the rusted remains of its own cataclysmic encounter with the animal taste for hostility. Does it resent the intrusion of these pinprick foreign trespassers? There is no guessing nature’s sensitivity. The embedded splinters may trouble the beach still, catch the shore uncomfortably in a storm as towers of water crash and churn the sand.
Or has it absorbed the hostile jetsam into its ancient self, a particle in the grand pattern of its story? Did the continental land mass feel the gnat bite of the daylong battle on its flank? Perhaps as a fleeting, troublesome moment at some point ‘back then’ which scorched, pricked and scratched irritatingly.
But sand is the future of rocks and memories, like people, eventually turn to dust. Earle McBride estimates that within a century, these residual traces of conflict will have been washed away beyond the power of even science to pick them out among the silica grains on the shore. History lives on as the mammoth sea-container of fact and conjecture, travelling on the sea of time, that is held in public ownership.
Memory, however, flourishes in the private domain and diminishes as each generation passes which carries the direct imprint of experience: the feel and sight of the sutured wound; the uninvited flashbacks; the young adult’s misery manifested as an old man’s meteor streak of anger. In a hundred years, D-Day will itself have slipped its moorings in common memory. Time will have disposed of the survivors, their habitually buttoned lips and terse anecdotes, their tangible connection with actual events. Our grandparents, parents and ourselves will be dust.
Recalling his part in the first assault on the Normandy beaches and remembering the mayhem and the sheer terror of it all, an old soldier asked himself decades after the event, ‘Why didn’t I cry?’
Martin Holman is a writer and art historian who has recently collaborated with Italian artists Gianfranco Baruchello, Mario Fallani and Paolo Icaro, and with British artists David Mackintosh, Jamie Shovlin and Richard Rome. His exhibition about Pino Pascali was shown at Camden Arts Centre, London, in 2011.