Seer of a Secret City
Ed Westcott’s photographic record of Oak Ridge’s early years
PHOTO FINISH: Ed Westcott’s images of Oak Ridge document a secret part of history.
Seer of a Secret City
by Heather Joyner Spica
Called “The Secret City” and “The City Behind a Fence,” Oak Ridge came to be the fifth most-populated place in Tennessee within a few frenzied years in the early 1940s. Situated on 59,000 acres that previously supported farms and a handful of tiny towns, it occupied a semi-remote area with resources necessary for producing enriched uranium, and outsiders and local folk united to do just that (although many were unaware as to precisely why they were there).
Riding the first wave of arrivals in late 1942 was photographer Ed Westcott, sent from Nashville by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He was only 20 years old and with little formal training, but through the next four years, Westcott produced truly amazing black and white images that are now on display at UT’s Downtown Gallery. Both historically and artistically significant, Westcott’s work reveals the environment and daily life of a closed society that he alone was permitted to photograph.
Because his photographs were for the government and often sensitive in terms of national security, Westcott was bound to remain unknown, his pictures for the most part hidden away rather than published. Documenting everything from visits by then-Sen. John F. Kennedy (with wife Jacqueline) and Dr. Robert Oppenheimer to kids playing with horseshoes and marbles, Westcott addressed the glorious and the mundane; his images capture the spirit of a specific place while representing the characteristics of American life found beyond the unique gated community he called—and still calls—home.
Regarding the Downtown Gallery’s dozens of Westcott photographs culled from a vast collection of negatives, viewers might be particularly struck by the innocence they project—this, in spite of the reason for Oak Ridge’s existence. In the exhibited prints we see little girls wearing prim dresses and bows in their hair, a couple posing with their pure-bred dogs, well-behaved G.I.s drinking beer at a bar, a radio station crooner with a hankie in his breast pocket, pretty Y-12 Control Room operators perched in elevated chairs, boys in 4-H caps and plaid jackets, a coal worker with his battered lunchbox, black workers in overalls and white men in suits and Stetsons, smartly-coiffed gals playing Chinese checkers in a dorm room, women hanging laundry outside a hutment, throngs of celebrants on Jackson Square on VJ Day, etc. But there’s a definite undercurrent in his work whether Westcott intended it or not, evident the longer one looks at his pictures.
Government-sanctioned segregation was only one of Oak Ridge’s less idyllic aspects that certain newcomers found disturbing and that Westcott’s photographs reflect—showing blacks doing only manual labor and living in substandard housing, for example. New York native Thelma Present fondly remembers years spent with her physicist husband and children in “The Secret City,” recalling a limited world that nevertheless consisted of numerous small pleasures and lively impromptu gatherings with people from a variety of cultural backgrounds.
However (as she wrote in her 1985 memoir and published correspondence titled Dear Margaret: Letters from Oak Ridge to Margaret Mead ), the racial prejudice that resulted in lesser jobs and no advanced education for black residents—or even library privileges, among other things—was upsetting to her and her family and friends. In her book, Present quotes African American Tommy Stevens, saying, “Oak Ridge black women were domestic workers. They weren’t hired at the plant because it would rob somebody of a good maid.”
Mention of the Army brings to mind another ominous aspect of Oak Ridge in the ‘40’s: unquestioned and potentially dangerous military authority. The military determined with whom one could live, and where and when. Prominent scientists were at first confined to the same dormitory in case talking in their sleep would mean giving away confidential information.
Dr. Lydia Bredig was, for a while, Oak Ridge’s only psychologist, and for security reasons laboratory employees who may have had serious problems were forbidden to see her in her private practice. And of course there’s the fact of The Bomb itself. Dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki despite objections from many of the very scientists who created it, the atomic bomb and proliferation of nuclear weapons remain mankind’s most pressing problem. We cannot behold Westcott’s images without The Bomb looming in our minds.
According to UT art professor Baldwin Lee, Westcott’s photographs “describe their subjects with grace and meaning,” whatever those subjects happen to be. Certainly, recognizing the aforementioned “undercurrents” does not negate positive aspects of the Oak Ridge experience—camaraderie, generosity, perseverance, and service to a greater cause, for instance. Nor are joyous occasions in any way absent from Westcott’s images, their recognition no doubt encouraged by the Army. More importantly, however, Westcott’s pictures reflect on a number of levels the notion that light’s perceptibility relies on the presence of darkness.
Was what the U.S. did to Japan a necessary evil? I’m sure that it seemed so to Oak Ridgers confronted with Hitler’s regime and the attack on Pearl Harbor, as well as to a majority of people in my parents’ generation. As part of that same generation, Westcott did what he did as a photographer in as honest and considered a manner as possible. And it was his intuitive drive to find meaning in circumstances he could not have fully comprehended that sets his work apart and makes his contribution invaluable.
What: Through the Lens of Ed Westcott: A Photographic History of World War II’s Secret City