“I wanted to document these sites because to a lot of people they are just a name or an idea,” said Michael Danner after more than four years of visiting and documenting seventeen nuclear power plants in Germany. The photographer was allowed access to the deepest corners of the plants, including the pools where spent nuclear fuel is cooled and stored. Acting almost as a visual hand-held silent tour through the plants, the photographs lead us from outside the facilities and the usually rural context of the countryside to inside, revealing the photographer’s artistic and documentary concerns. Danner’s intention to show the human side of the plants offers different perspectives on the massive, stodgy, and potentially menacing structures, presenting us with the rituals of everyday activities and an introspective view of the facilities’ interiors.
Germany’s decision to shut down its nuclear power plants has determined Danner to photograph the facilities in an attempt to investigate the immediate past and restore considerations about how these facilities which once powered several generations have fallen into disfavour. Photographs taken from the Unterweser facility on the North Sea coast or the Isar power station in Bavaria picture a time and social conditions which have made Danner reflect on how the 1970s and an environmentally-conscious Germany extend their concerns to investigate the present. In an interview for Deutsche Welle, the photographer said his role is to contribute to the debate on nuclear power. It is not the evident, manifest power that Danner investigates in this series; instead, his focus falls on the normativity portrayed by these enclosed spaces, the rituals and routines that shaped the workers’ everyday views of the structures, as seen through an anonymous, absent eye. “I didn’t include people in the pictures,” says Danner, “but there are small items – backpacks or trophies, for instance – that give an indication about those who work here. Some staff members have been working at nuclear sites for decades.” Chancellor Angela Merkel’s announcement on May 29, 2011, that Germany would close all of its nuclear power plants by 2012 thus concluding over four decades of nuclear power supplying and nuclear energy experiments has enabled Danner to set the project into a historical perspective, at the dusk of an age. The book is a documentary and an archive at the same time, balancing the past and the present only to raise questions on how will this epoch survive its future. The overlapping of past and present can be observed starting with the book cover and the retrospective look over environmental activist Günter Zint’s historical pictures and archive photographs of anti-nuclear demonstration. Looking through the times of heated confrontations between anti-nuclear power activists and governmental forces, one can only reflect on how past aspirations have shaped the present or how will the present be pictured in the future. Designed in collaboration with the Dutch graphic designer Sybren Kuiper and shortlisted for the 2015 edition of Deutscher Fotobuchpreis, Critical Mass is more than a document: it conveys a message for the generations to come, a plausible story of how ordinary routines may meet their decline, and an untold reflection on the photographic medium as archival document.