The man behind the photograph

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By April M. Brown

Jack Aeby witnessed the first atomic bomb test in the United States on July 16, 1945. Not only did he witness this history-making event, he was permitted to take photographs with his personal 35mm camera.


Upon arriving home in Los Alamos that evening, he began the painstaking process of developing his film in a dark room, a process that includes more than 21 steps, many chemicals and numerous hours.
Out of this process came the only color photograph taken of the Trinity Test.
The photo is in constant use, even today, normally lacking any credit to the photographer, or often incorrectly citing Los Alamos National Laboratory or the U.S. Army. Few even know his name or assume that it was taken by one of the photographic team members who was there to officially capture the test on film.
During the upcoming Trinity Site Tour, sponsored by the Los Alamos Historical Society and Buffalo Tours, guests will have the chance to meet Aeby, who will be there to provide anecdotes about the test and describe some of the events that occurred leading up to — and following that fateful day, a chance to meet the man behind the photo.

Becoming a Part of the Manhattan Project

Aeby attended three semesters at the University of Nebraska until he and friends from his hometown ROTC unit attempted to enlist in the Army in the spring of 1943 — hoping for a chance to help end the war.
During his physical, they found spots on his lungs due to childhood exposure to tuberculosis. Classified 4-F, he was unable to join the military.  It was suggested he move to the dry climate of New Mexico in an attempt to improve his condition, and he could try again to enlist.
As a favor to a family friend, he agreed to help drive a car from their home in Mound City, Mo. to California via Santa Fe, where Aeby’s older sister lived with her husband. On the stop, he met up with his cousin who was applying for an unknown position for an unknown entity and had an extra application. He filled it out and proceeded on his way to deliver the car. Upon arrival, he was met with the news that his application was accepted and was asked return to New Mexico to work for the top secret Manhattan Project.

A man of many talents
As one of the first civilian employees to work at the laboratory, his career was diverse. He began in the summer of 1943 as a driver, shuttling scientists and new employees from the Lamy Train Station to 109 East Palace Ave.
Aeby said that everyone traveled under a code name, sometimes causing people not to respond when called out by their alternative name — a name often similar to their own. For example, Enrico Fermi was “Eric Farmer.” As a student of physics, he recognized these prominent scientists however, he was required to maintain secrecy.
Once new employees received their credentials and housing assignments, Aeby would then transport them up the “Hill” to begin work in Los Alamos.
Later, he was placed in charge of the chemistry stockroom where he was handed a Kodak catalog and was asked to order “one of everything.”
He served in a number of other positions on the project. While working with Emilio Segrè, he received the first shipment of plutonium from Hanford, about the size of a 50-cent piece. He held in his hands the world’s entire supply of plutonium.

The Trinity test
At the time of the test, Aeby was a part of the Health Physics Group with Emilio Segrè. He was invited along and given permission to take photos of the group’s activities, including the test.    
No one knew what to expect or how to set up for such a shot, since a test like this had never been performed before and its outcome was unsure. A team of official photographers was posted in bunkers on the south side of the test. Aeby was positioned at base camp in the north.
He took the first photo with the bulb open and realized there was more than enough light. He then made some adjustments and snapped what would become the historical photo everyone sees today.
Color motion pictures were attempted, but they were badly overexposed or damaged by the explosion, which blistered and solarized the film.

The negative
When asked if he still possessed the original negative, Aeby said the lab asked him to surrender the negative for safekeeping.
He rarely gets photo credit and, even today, the photo is usually misrepresented in publications — it is almost always flipped. A small tail coming off the side of the cloud helps to easily determine this phenomenon.
Aeby explained that the photo is flipped to match the photos taken by the official photographers posted on the opposite side of him. Their photos were taken from the south looking north. His were taken from the north facing south.
Ironically enough, the laboratory has since lost the negative after retrieving it in the name of national security. No one knows of its whereabouts. Only copies of the photo remain.

Beyond the war
After the war, Aeby continued working on the Hill, even as an official photographer for Operation Crossroads, until he moved to California to pursue his psychology degree at Berkley. He later returned to LANL to work in Health Physics (H-6) where he remained until his retirement in 1973.
In the following years, Aeby worked for Eberline in the clean up of radioactive sites across the country and around the world, even returning to Enewetok and Bikini in the Marshall Islands, where he witnessed the return of the lands to the indigenous people.
He continues to live in La Mesilla, near Española, in a home with a view of the mesas and valleys of San Ildefonso and Santa Clara Pueblo. He also owns a home in Hawaii, where he and his wife Jeannne, visit occasionally. He still enjoys photography and spends a great deal of time reading.
Even though he does not receive credit for the photo very often, Aeby, 88, expressed that he was not overly concerned about the credit. He seemed grateful just to witness the test and have the opportunity to use his photography skills on such a unique occasion.
Like so many others who witnessed Trinity, he signed a petition for a non-lethal demonstration of the atomic bomb on a deserted island, to prompt a Japanese surrender. The petition never made it to President Harry Truman. The wheels were already in unstoppable motion toward Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Although he is modest about his part in the event, his name will always be a part of atomic history. He managed the only color photo of the test with a Perfex-44 35mm camera, a bit of skill and a sprinkle of luck. This photo will always be the image people associate with the test — even if his name isn’t attached and it is flipped.
To join Aeby on the upcoming tour to the Trinity Test Site on April 7, contact Buffalo Tours at 662-3965 or visit buffalotoursla.com. Guests must be Historical Society members to attend.
The Trinity Test Site is open to all visitors twice annually, on the first Saturdays of April and October. Additionally, in September of this year, the Los Alamos Historical Society will host an exhibit of Aeby’s photos.