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Radiation Underfoot

Deep beneath a Cook County forest preserve rest relics of the atomic age. A local artist captures the energy still emanating from them.

Hiking the leafy trails at Red Gate Woods in southwest suburban Lemont, you’d never know that you’re on radioactive ground. But proof can be found in the work of artist Jeremy Bolen. He buries rolls of film in the preserve, which also happens to be the burial site of the world’s first nuclear reactors, built at the University of Chicago in the early 1940s as part of the Manhattan Project. After two weeks, he recovers and develops his film: It has been fogged by the radioactive emissions, which expose it in haunting and curious ways. “I consider it to be a documentary mode of photography,” he says. “And I let the landscape collaborate.” Today, engraved boulders mark Site A, where the two nuclear reactors are entombed, and Plot M, which conceals other contaminated materials. The area is safe to visit—but as Bolen points out, it’s still a little unsettling: “Radiation’s life goes on for a very long time.”

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