Ed Westcott's Secret City Photos

Seventy years out, the world remembers the Manhattan Project through the artful efforts of a gifted young photographer

East Tennesseans—Oak Ridgers in particular—can feel justifiably proprietary when it comes to the Manhattan Project. It was 70 years ago that thousands of people vacated homes and farms to make space. Thousands of others relocated alone or with their families to staff enormous secret factories and support facilities hidden among shallow valleys, just across the Clinch River from Knox County, in Roane and Anderson Counties. Some people—mostly young women—did highly specialized, technical engineering work. Others hustled long hours in laundries and cafeterias and markets and on construction crews; work that might seem mundane under ordinary circumstances.

Most early residents of the engineered landscape that would become Oak Ridge worked in seclusion for months or years before they would know why.

For most people—in East Tennessee and elsewhere, including those with first-hand experience—memories of the Secret City that produced the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 exist in crisp, perfectly composed black and white images. In groups or in isolation those images are richly narrative and dynamic; they capture the intense, patriotic purpose of skilled workers and the lively, social, and surprisingly human environment in which that work took place. Those images were captured by a young man with a camera named Ed Westcott.

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Ed Westcott's 91st birthday is approaching. He lives in the Oak Ridge home where his five children spent their childhoods—a modernized three-bedroom cemesto D model that dates from 1944. The walls are covered with framed photographs, a mix of historical treasure and family record. Along with photos by Westcott of seven different American presidents—from John F. Kennedy, when he was a senator visiting Oak Ridge, to George H. W. Bush—are portraits of handsome children and grandchildren at various benchmark moments.

Westcott suffered a stroke in 2005. His speech is impaired, but not his ability to express himself. If words fail him as an answer to a question, he will briskly walk the questioner through the house and point out a photograph that will not.

By 1945, Clinton Engineer Works (CEW), the innocent-enough-sounding company formed to cloak the Manhattan Project, would employ and house 75,000 people. Westcott was employee number 29, hired in 1942, right after the site was chosen. As a staff photographer for the Nashville office of the Army Corps of Engineers, Westcott had taken aerial photos that led to the site's selection. He was 20 years old. Until 1946, he was the only person on site allowed to have a camera.

Westcott's daughter, Emily Hunnicutt, and her husband Don, also a native Oak Ridger, are Westcott's self-appointed archivists. They have electronically cataloged thousands of his photos, and have identified many of his subjects via interviews and extensive research. The three of them together in a room can provide a fair picture of Westcott's Oak Ridge oeuvre and career.

"He was just performing his job," says Don Hunnicutt. "It would not become clear for years how much of a complete history those photos would form. He knew it was very important to get quality photographs. Film was scarce due to the war effort, because it contained silver. He had to be very conscientious of what he shot and how many.

"He worked with an engineer and they came out to the area which was nothing but stakes and construction. The engineer would instruct him to take a photograph of certain map coordinates that would later become a railroad bed or house or building."

Westcott received his first camera at age 12, a $25 German Foth Derby for which his father had saved for a year. Instead of lemonade stands, Westcott's first entrepreneurial endeavor was Centennial Photography. At age 13, in his Nashville neighborhood, he operated a film processing lab out of a retired mobile lunch wagon. He charged 50 cents per roll. Although Westcott had easy access to the work of luminary government-funded predecessors, such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, he never studied photography formally and was essentially self taught.

Phil Westcott, 25, is Ed Westcott's grandson. Phil Westcott studied photography while attending Shepherd University's fine arts program, in Shepherdstown, W. Va. He is now a photographer working with the National Park Service in Alaska, documenting evidence of climate change.

"I remember once as a child," says Phil Westcott, "before I had any interest in photography, going with my family to visit my grandparents. And there was one night when I was allowed to stay up late with my dad and granddad—it might have been midnight or one o'clock. He got out this old steel film development can and showed me how to load it. I honestly had no idea what I was doing, but I had a lot of fun doing it. It was interesting that that was the thing that he did to keep me entertained."

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Ed Westcott was assigned to take photographs containing crucial information, but he was limited by the number of photographs he could take. His advanced skills, sensitivity, and intuition enabled him to take single frames that told multiple stories and served multiple purposes. Those building site photos from his first assignments not only enabled the architects and engineers who would use them to plan for infrastructure, they beautifully captured a pristine Appalachian landscape that was about to be permanently changed. Westcott's early photos endure as perhaps the best records of the farms and hamlets displaced by the Manhattan Project.

While photography had made extraordinary advances during its hundred years before Westcott's lifetime, those advances primarily involved increasingly responsive chemicals and film materials. The equipment had changed little. Westcott's rig had more in common with Mathew Brady's Civil War battlefield kit than any camera most of us could put a hand to today. Westcott primarily used a four-by-five-inch Speed Graphic or an eight-by-10-inch Deardorff view camera. Both cameras were focused by adjustable bellows. The smaller camera was capable of holding a six-shot load of film. The larger camera held one sheet of film at a time. Both usually required a tripod, and always required major flash wattage when used indoors.

"What was involved to take the photographs has not been discussed much," says Don Hunnicutt. "If you think about the preparation before he went on assignment, the vehicle he had to travel in, the roads were not paved. Just getting from point A to point B and being certain that point B was where it was supposed to be. There was a lot of uncertainty in those early days."

There is no question that the often unpopulated photos Westcott took of and for construction during the Manhattan Project are exceptional for multiple reasons. Likewise, there is no question that Westcott clearly preferred to photograph people, and his photographs of people—from crowds to portraits—are superlative.

In 2005, the University of Tennessee organized an exhibition of Westcott photos. For the accompanying catalog, esteemed Knoxville photographer and UT art professor Baldwin Lee wrote the appreciative essay, "James Edward Westcott, Photographer." (Lee's essay is the source of numerous biographical details in this article.)

"What distinguishes Ed Westcott's photographs of the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge," wrote Lee, "is that they describe with precise accuracy the facts of his subjects, thereby satisfying the demands of his employers, and that they do by capturing the qualities of wonder, amazement, surprise, delight, sorrow, affection, knowledge, understanding, compassion, sympathy, respect, and gravity. These are entities that for all but the most talented photographers exist beyond the bounds of the photographic medium.

"Ed Westcott's photographs transcend anonymity because they describe their subjects with grace and meaning."

The community of Oak Ridge has struggled for decades with the stigma that comes with having helped invent doomsday. During the Cold War and ongoing nuclear weapons races, it has proven a challenge to appropriately acknowledge the uncommon mettle that first turned nuclear engineering into a war-ending assault against a proven-deadly hostile enemy. For good or ill, it appears to have required the slow passing of the generation that made those sacrifices and unspeakably difficult choices for their descendants to comprehend the pointlessness of judgment from afar. It's also possible that the modern vagaries of so-called preemptive war and battling ideology instead of nation states have tempered perspectives of World War II. An exhibition of Westcott photos of Oak Ridge subjects in a prestigious art gallery of national reputation would have been difficult to imagine during the 20th century. Only in recent years have Westcott's widely published Oak Ridge photos begun to be attributed to him.

"Baldwin Lee did an excellent job of presenting Ed's work as art," says Don Hunnicutt. "The clarity of his photographs. His subject matter. That really helped the public appreciate his work."

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Manhattan Project-era workers at Oak Ridge were forbidden to discuss their tasks away from their work places. Scuttlebutt notwithstanding, they tended to be certain only of what was happening in the rooms where they worked. Westcott was an exception, and had access to work happening throughout the compound. He saw materials and tools and instruments and work in progress.

Asked if he had connected the dots, and knew that the goal was a bomb before the bomb was dropped, Westcott nods emphatically. To his son in-law, he says, "Lawrence."

Although work happening at Oak Ridge was top secret, the race between Germany and the U.S. for nuclear weapons was not. Just as World War II was beginning, California physicist E.O. Lawrence had won the Nobel prize for creating and perfecting the cyclotron. His work was much celebrated. And his designs were being applied at Oak Ridge as the primary means to enrich uranium.

"There were publications that discussed the work going on elsewhere," says Don Hunnicutt, "trying to split the atom or whatever they were doing, before Oak Ridge was ever conceived. He's referring to E.O. Lawrence, in Livermore, California. They had helped these scientists defect from Germany. There were already scientists working on atomic energy.

"He told me at one time, from what he saw throughout the early days, he had gone and got a chemistry book and put things together."

Outside of the military strategists involved, Westcott probably had the most complete view of the making of the Little Boy bomb, and its implementation. He had seen the site before ground-breaking. As the bomb was being completed, Westcott shot another series of Oak Ridge aerials. These photos would be hand-delivered to major newspapers across the country, with instructions to wait for official notice to break their seals. The government would use these photos to explain all that had gone into the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an American reconnaissance flight photographed the ruin that resulted. Westcott was the first person not present on that flight to see those images.

"It took three days to print those," says Emily Hunnicutt, "with armed guards outside the darkroom."

Asked what he remembers from those photographs, Westcott grimaces and shakes his head.

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While working in Oak Ridge, Westcott photographed for CEW, for the Oak Ridge Journal newspaper, and for himself and friends (including the obligatory baby and wedding portraits). We believe there are examples of all of these here. And there is ample evidence here and elsewhere to suggest that Westcott most enjoyed photographing for his own pleasure, without assignment. CEW would roughly evolve to become parts of Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which would further evolve to become the current Department of Energy. In 1966, Westcott transferred to AEC headquarters near Washington, D.C., where he worked until his retirement in 1977.

According to Baldwin Lee, "Successful photographers must possess certain attributes: they must be able to see clearly, they must understand what it is they see, they must be able to enhance what they see through direction or intuition, and they must have mastery over their medium. Ed Westcott certainly embodies all these prerequisites. In addition, he brought with him one other quality: heart. Much of the world can be defined as being categorized by reason and logic, but beyond reason and logic, there are matters of the heart. However important facts may be, they have no meaning until they become the province of the heart.

"What one remembers, because of the enduring power of Ed Westcott's photographs, is a place and a time that was not only important historically but personally heartening. What one remembers is not only the fact but also the inspiration."

Metro Pulse thanks Ed Westcott and Emily and Don Hunnicutt for sharing these photographs. The Hunnicutts continue to seek new information about the subjects and settings of Ed Westcott's photos. If you have info to share about these photos, please do so using our online comment system.