Former physicist photographs Manhattan Project history where it happened

Photo essay of seldom-seen sights appears in Smithsonian magazine and on display in downtown Los Alamos

July 25, 2023

Minesh Bacrania delights in finding new ways to share his world.

Thanks to Los Alamos National Laboratory physicist-turned-freelance photographer Minesh Bacrania, science enthusiasts, history buffs and the just-plain curious can now view seldom-seen sights of the Manhattan Project in the pages of the July/August 2023 issue of Smithsonian Magazine and in a large-scale display in the windows of the former CB Fox Department Store (1735 Central Avenue, Los Alamos).

While some buildings that were in use during the Manhattan Project, like Fuller Lodge and J. Robert Oppenheimer’s house, are now the property of Los Alamos County and the Los Alamos History Museum and available to the public, the research sites are still off limits, surrounded by 40 square miles of present-day Lab property, accessible only by employees with a security clearance.

Now, during the 80th anniversary of the Manhattan Project and in response to increased awareness stemming from the recently released movie, “Oppenheimer,” these photos allow the public to see what they wouldn’t be able to otherwise.

“Manhattan Project employees didn’t have ivory towers and shiny facilities,” Bacrania says. “They had relatively dumpy buildings on a mesa in the desert. It’s incredible to think that such a simple setup precipitated these huge technological advances.”

Behind the fence

Bacrania first saw some of the locations in passing as part of his Laboratory work in nuclear nonproliferation. He thought more people should be able to appreciate the meager tools the early scientists worked with, but the logistics weren’t easy.

In 2021, he teamed up with Smithsonian Magazine on a detailed proposal to photograph every Manhattan Project-era landmark on Laboratory property. He shared the idea with Staff Director Frances Chadwick, who helped champion the idea with Lab managers. In the end, it took Chadwick and a team of five professionals a total of three years to secure the necessary clearances for Bacrania to complete the photo shoot, declassify the photography and publish the work, but he agrees it was worth it.

“Lots of people who’ve grown up in Los Alamos or have loved ones working at the Lab have never even seen where their families work,” he says. “Few people get to see behind the fence to understand what a weapons lab looks like.”

Minesh Bacrania, who prefers to work with large-format film, arrives at most shoots laden with a wooden field camera, dark cloth and sheet film to capture images. He develops the film in his home darkroom in Los Alamos.

Behind the camera

Over the course of 11 months in 2022, Bacrania visited nearly 20 sites across the Lab’s sprawling, 40 square-mile campus. His aim was to capture these places in honest detail.

His photos included those of the Slotin Building, site of a criticality accident involving scientist Louis Slotin; battleship bunkers that protected sensitive equipment during experiments to determine whether the Trinity nuclear test would succeed; and Pond Cabin, a tiny laboratory where physicist Emilio Segre’s team made the pivotal discovery that the Thin Man plutonium bomb design would not work.

He also visited Gun Site, birthplace of the design for Little Boy, and V-Site, where the Trinity “Gadget” was first assembled.

“So many of the technologies we take for granted today only exist because of the research done at national laboratories,” he says. “It’s a privilege to bring some of that science and history to an international audience.”

See the photos in Smithsonian Magazine