Robert Falcone exposes the creepy side of nuclear testing in 'Operation Doorstep'

Joel Oliphint

For the last 10 or so years, artist Robert Falcone has been exploring the archives of nuclear testing facilities.

“I'm a child of the ’50s. I remember ‘duck and cover.’ I remember Civil Defense. I grew up with nuclear weapons as the bad guy, and as I got older and better educated, I started to wonder what this all meant,” Falcone said. “I've always been fascinated with [old] images of nuclear testing, much of which was done on U.S. soil, which I find pretty amazing.”

A few years ago, Falcone came upon a certain set of photos from a Nevada test site, and after being passed back and forth to various archives, he finally found the high-resolution images that depict cars, houses and mannequins in period-specific attire. The settings were used to assess how well structures could survive a nuclear blast, and the before-and-after photos documented the damage.

“They were carefully staged scenes and houses built specifically to see what a nuclear blast approximately would do, and I thought the scenes were not only very interesting, but just a little off-putting. The way they were staged was a little weird. And I started thinking about what it would look like today,” Falcone said. “I wanted to show a storyline from immediately before the atomic explosion, in a variety of scenarios, and then immediately after the atomic explosion, and then somehow relate that to today. And the story I wanted to tell is that, 70 years later, I'm not sure we've advanced at all in our thinking. We're as close to nuclear holocaust right now as we were then.”

To help tell the story, Falcone added gold splashes and other colorful embellishments to the black-and-white photos — not to make them more realistic, but to accentuate the strangeness of it all and to make them feel less clinical. “The colors aren't traditional palettes. They're just a little off. In some cases, they're cool; in some cases they're hot,” he said. “When I add gold — which I think is beautiful, but also kind of creepy, depending on what you do with it — that makes it even more off-putting. I want the viewer to not only see the story and think about it, but to be put off by it and wonder what he or she might do to keep our world safe in the next 20 years.”

Ironically, the families portrayed in these nuclear photos were not so nuclear. “You'll have an image of a woman with three unrelated children, which is kind of a weird grouping for a family. Then you'll have two men, a couple of children and a woman who seems to be distant from all this,” Falcone said. “I think that the people that did the designs and did the staging had their own inside joke about what a family should look like. … The nuclear family at that time was a mother, a father and two children, and they pretty much bashed that and showed a number of other possibilities.”

Initially, Falcone planned to exhibit the manipulated images in a certain order Downtown at OSU’s Urban Arts Space, but when the pandemic hit, the artist and gallery pivoted to a virtual show titled “Operation Doorstep.” In the video, which you can view below, Falcone's images are juxtaposed with actors in a hyper-real setting, all set to an off-kilter, jazz-fusion soundtrack performed by the artist and his bandmates.

Falcone hopes the virtual show stirs up something up viewers. “I'd like them to begin to believe that the nuclear threat is still real,” he said, “and that there might be something they personally could do about it.”

A manipulated "after" photo from "Operation Doorstep."


A manipulated "before" photo from "Operation Doorstep."