Illustrating Annihiliation

When it came to trying to illustrate the complexities of nuclear war, there were many possible approaches. On the one hand, there was the abstract approach – seeking universal symbols to express the horrifying particulars. That was the way Martyl Langsdorf created the cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and how Erik Nitsche used the cornucopia to sell the nuclear submarine.

Martyl-Langsdorf-cover-1947Erik Nitsche, "Hydrodynamics"

On the other, there was the deeply detailed. Since 1965, illustrators at the Defense Intelligence Agency produced art for official reports illustrating new Soviet technologies, including Soviet Military Power, an annual publication about the Soviet threat published by the DIA in the 1980s for public consumption.

tank  field_laser_9Soviet Laser

What the DIA illustrators did for Soviet Military Power was somewhere between weapon portraiture and techno-thriller story-boarding. While paintings like “Soviet Artillery Supporting River Crossing” by Richard J. Terry (above left; 1982) could follow well-known facts, paintings like Edward L. Cooper’s “Soviet Mobile Laser in Afghanistan” (above center, 1985) had to be little more than rough guesstimates. The precision of the art made up for the fact that much was not known, and what was known could not be published in a public source like Soviet Military Power.

What killed the DIA’s Illustration Department was, ironically enough, American technology, with computer-generated graphics supplanted the lush artwork. The last “visual information specialist” retired in 2000.

You can see a selection of 40 of the works at the DIA’s website here..


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