Work of Manhattan Project-era photographer Ed Westcott lives on

Posted: June 13, 2012 - 1:30pm

Ed Westcott mans the shutter release for another historic photograph.

Ed Westcott mans the shutter release for another historic photograph.

The final episode of A Nuclear Family: Y‑12 National Security Complex aired on East Tennessee PBS in late April. Y‑12 workers wrote, produced, videographed, and edited the documentary film miniseries. If not for the work, however, of now 90-year-old photographer Ed Westcott, the result would have been something entirely different. Westcott, the federal government’s photographer for Oak Ridge during the Manhattan Project, even has a cameo appearance at the end of the fourth episode.

During the 1940s, Westcott was charged not only with capturing images of government work under way but also with documenting the daily lives of Oak Ridge’s residents. Many of the more than 15,000 images he took between 1942 and 1946 hang on walls of Y‑12 National Security Complex buildings and in other locations in Oak Ridge. A 20-ft-high by 50-ft-wide mural of a photograph commonly called “Shift Change” covers part of the north wall of Y‑12’s cafeteria in Jack Case Center.

Within 20 seconds of the beginning of episode one of A Nuclear Family, viewers see the first of a myriad of Westcott photos that help make the miniseries riveting and personal. As the narrator explains that “these ridges and valleys that Oak Ridge calls home are accustomed to vigilance and sacrifice,” landscape footage shifts to a Westcott photo of a young female seated by a portrait of a young soldier. The stage is set for the four-episode chronological description of a sense of family and deep pride felt by those who were and are connected to the work of Y‑12.

Episode four documents current Y‑12 missions, addressing nuclear nonproliferation, the emerging threat of terrorism and other challenges. Videographer Buck Kahler of Y‑12’s Photography and Video Services came up with the idea of ending the series with an image of the modern work force in front of a modern facility, with employees positioned like the workers leaving the plant in Westcott’s Shift Change photo.

Supervisor of Digital and Photo Imaging Services Terry Marlar orchestrated the final scene, in which workers are standing in front of the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility. Among them are two offspring of individuals in the historic photo. Also among them is Ed Westcott. Including Westcott was the idea of Donna Griffith, director of Communications Services.

As the scene comes to a close, all the workers except Westcott walk forward as if exiting at shift change. The scene fades to the historic black-and-white image — with a young, similarly dressed man standing where Westcott had just been positioned in color. Former U.S. Representative and longtime Y‑12 advocate Zach Wamp can be heard reflecting, “There’s such a legacy and a history here. And the people that work here, and have worked here, are like a big family.”

Just as Westcott was careful to record poignant moments in the early days of Y‑12, Marlar seized the opportunity to create and record a current one. He asked Westcott’s son John, a Y‑12 engineer, to stand in for his father for another take of the modern scene. When all the participants were in place, Marlar handed Westcott the shutter release attached to the camera. “We’d like for you to take another historical photo,” Marlar said. This shot, which has both the old and new Westcott fingerprint, will be used in future publications to illustrate the diversity of Y‑12’s new work force.

The miniseries, which helps fulfill the National Historic Preservation Act’s requirements to interpret the history of U.S. Department of Energy sites, has already won two awards. Episodes one and two were submitted to the 45th Worldfest Independent International Film Festival held in Houston in April. Both won a platinum Remi, an award that recognizes the creative genius of artist Frederic Remington.

The miniseries can be viewed online, and East Tennessee PBS plans to rebroadcast the four episodes back-to-back in July. PBS is also considering airing the miniseries throughout Tennessee and possibly nationally. A DVD set will be available at the Y‑12 History Center starting in June. Schools, libraries and interested individuals may request complimentary copies of the DVD set by contacting Y‑12 historian Ray Smith by email (

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