Sunday, September 25, 2011

For the Locals: Free Japan 1945 Photography Exhibit

Japan 1945:
Images by U.S. Marine Photographer Joe O'Donnell

An exhibition of images taken by the late Nashville photographer Joe O’Donnell in 1945 post-war Japan opens October 6 at the State Museum’s Military Branch.

The exhibit, entitled Japan 1945: Images by U.S. Marine Photographer Joe O’Donnell, will showcase 24 of the most compelling images O’Donnell took while serving in the U.S. Marines Corps in Japan.

O’Donnell enlisted in the U.S. Marines Corps in 1943 at the age of 20 and was assigned as a photographer with the 5th Division. In 1945, he was given the order to document the aftermath of U.S. bombing raids on the Japanese cities struck by atomic bombs, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. During the seven months he spent on assignment, he also photographed cities such as Sasebo, one of the more than 60 Japanese cities that had been firebombed.

Throughout this time, O’Donnell took thousands of official photographs and shot several hundred with his own camera. This camera, as well as other objects from his career as a photographer, will also be presented in the exhibition.

When he returned home from the war, O’Donnell put the negatives of his own photos in a trunk and locked them away, emotionally unable to look at them until after nearly 50 years.

In 1995, O’Donnell published many of the photos in Japan. A decade later, a book was published in the United States by Vanderbilt University Press, entitled "Japan 1945: A U.S. Marine’s Photographs from Ground Zero." He also lectured and exhibited in both countries. The State Museum used original negatives from Joe O’Donnell’s personal collection to create the exhibition.

"These powerful photographs were among the original images O’Donnell took as a U. S. Marine photojournalist in occupied Japan in the aftermath of war, showing both destruction and reconstruction. They provide a look at the world’s entry into the nuclear age," explained the museum’s Executive Director Lois Riggins-Ezzell.

The exhibition of O’Donnell’s photographs captures gripping images of Japanese children and adult survivors in their world as it was at the time.

"Not only do O’Donnell’s tragically beautiful photographs capture a hell on earth, they also embody his profound compassion and respect, making his haunting images precious not only as documentation but also as works of art," Donna Seaman said in a recent review of O’Donnell’s work for Booklist magazine.

After the war, O’Donnell was employed as a photographer with the United States Information Agency, an organization created in 1953, where he photographed American presidents, world leaders and important White House events. A case displaying objects from O’Donnell’s personal collection is included in the exhibition.

In the early 1980s, O’Donnell moved to Nashville, where he continued to take photographs, exhibit his work, and lecture until his death in 2007.

Japan 1945: Images by U.S. Marine Photographer Joe O’Donnell will be on view at the Military Branch Museum through September 2012. This museum, located in the War Memorial building on plaza across the street from the main museum, is closed on Sundays and Mondays.

For more information, contact Mary Skinner at (615) 253-0103 or

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