ARTHUR S. AUBRY IS A reticent guy. A photographer who's generally uncomfortable talking about anything beyond the bald facts of his work, Aubry's a perfect match for this subject matter: the structures and networks of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Washington. A vast, sprawling complex whose product was kept secret for years, Hanford produced the uranium for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, and for decades contributed to our nuclear arsenal. The facility is now inactive, mostly mothballed, and in the midst of a seemingly endless cleanup process. Aubry has photographed Hanford over much of this decade, working as part of a Cultural Resources team to document the site. A generous selection of his images is currently on view at Esther Claypool in Pioneer Square.

The show is presented with very little explanation. Photographs are titled by subject, which in this case mostly means the meaningless-seeming letters and numbers assigned to each structure, so images of hulking reactors bear titles like 100 D, 20 April 1999. Aubry's not interested in being an interpretive tour guide. He's here to show you pictures.

Those black-and-white pictures are a revelation. Any schmo with a car can get pretty close to the chain of reactors and take pictures; Aubry got access to the interiors, the control rooms and conduit systems, which look nothing like you'd imagine. This seemingly high-tech world turns out to look like the boiler room of an incredibly large building, full of analog gauges, insulated pipes, and cranks to open and shut valves, all in dizzyingly complex, neatly labeled arrays. These are the mechanisms of a technology that left a couple of generations of children to grow up in fear of a real apocalypse, that was central to the Cold War détente, that created waste which will be dangerous for a really long time, and that, occasionally, produced some pretty cheap electric power.

Very little of this is suggested in Aubry's photographs. His images are a form of archeology, exploring places whose active lives have ended and which have been more or less abandoned, visited only by those employed to take them apart or clean them up. He captures enameled panels with neat, labeled holes where their gauges have been taken out; vacant control centers; an orchard that was cut down after radiation was detected in it; a line of dust-covered control stations warehoused in a long, near-empty concrete room.

There is a disturbing normality, an occasional sense of the everyday in some of his images. Gracefully hand-lettered signs warn "This EQUIPMENT to be operated by Authorized Personal Only" in a swooping combination of script and printed letters. How sweet to learn that government operations weren't always cursed with lousy aesthetics and stenciled letters, I thought, but -- they had to put up a sign to tell people they were letting into the reactors not to touch the controls?!

Elsewhere, too, Aubry has an eye for detail. He shows the outsides of the large reactors in only five photos, and devotes as much attention to the many small, one-room structures scattered across the scrub desert plateau. Indeterminate Structure, 200E, 16 Feb 1999 shows a small shed isolated on the plain, its corners decorated with metal exhaust pipes with U-shaped bends at their tops, giving the building horns. This structure, and other sheds and concrete boxes Aubry focuses on, are reminiscent of the "follies" English gentry built in their gardens -- useless, absurd ruins built for visual pleasure only. That this shed obviously had some purpose, one Aubry was unable to ascertain, gives the photo a strange charge.

Aubry chose not to show the more sensationalistic photos he took on site. Behind the counter, in a box of extra images, is a photo of a stretcher on which victims of nuclear accidents could be examined from behind heavy shields. A single face-shield, hanging near the gallery entrance, is the only suggestion of the human dangers posed by employment at the site. Aubry's pictures are instead a tale of chilling normality, of a world of work whose consequences were often unknown to its workers. Through Aubry's lens, these vacant structures are subtly made to tell a very human story.

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