Humans have been using fireworks for centuries, to ward off evil spirits, to inaugurate happiness, to celebrate momentous occasions. During the Song dynasty in China, all people would do is throw bamboo sticks into the fire and enjoy the crackling sound they made. Transitioning to gunpowder and rockets rendered the whole process not only louder but also more fun, and adding color-producing salts and emission enhancers such as aluminum or barium to the mix turned what had been a ritual into grand entertainment and, inevitably, big business too. The colonists, who celebrated Independence Day even before it was clear that the nation they wanted to create would indeed become independent, loved fireworks, loved the combination of color, noise, and mild danger they added to their parties. And there’s nothing quite like watching the night sky being lit up by bands of ever-more complex shapes that will then pour down on you in weightless garlands of colorful sparks or filigreed showers of light, as if some mythical beast, or a whole army of them, were wending their way down from heaven.
“Once up against the sky / it’s hard to tell them from the stars,” wrote Elizabeth Bishop, in her poem “The Armadillo,” about a similar, though simpler practice in Brazil, where fire balloons were sent flying up into the sky in celebration of St. John’s Day. One doesn’t just reach for the stars, one makes the stars, and one makes them dance. But when those starry balloons, those little bombs of fire, come down again and hit the ground, setting it on fire, the similarity between that spectacle and a related one, a grander, lethal, noxious one, became difficult to ignore. Bishop’s poem was published in The New Yorker in June 1957, at the height of the Cold War. Two months later, the Russians developed the first intercontinental ballistic missile. In her poem, turning her attention to the vulnerable animals on the ground—a pair of owls, a glistening armadillo, and a small rabbit—, Bishops suggests that the boundaries between celebration and war, between creation and destruction, may be fluid, and she imagines the armadillo raising its fist in protest against its undeserved fate: “Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry! O falling fire and piercing cry / and panic, and a weak mailed fist / clenched ignorant against the sky!”
The connection between celebration and war wasn’t lost either on the German-born, Boston-based photographer Mark Römisch when he witnessed the July 4 celebrations in his adopted hometown. Boasting an international client list ranging from the Bavarian state theatre to Harper’s Bazaar, Römisch, himself a trained actor and director, has won multiple awards and exhibited his work in venues and juried shows all over the world, from Trieste, Italy, to Fort Wayne, Indiana. He is no stranger to controversy. In his series “Love in the Time of Hope,” for example, he examines the psychological effects of waterboarding, a form of torture revived after 9/11. Römisch’s photographs feature partial views of prostrate naked male and female bodies, their faces, contorted with pain, covered with cloth, their skin translucent against lemon-colored backgrounds. Or consider his recent large-format work “Garten der Lüste,” an allusion to Hieronymus Bosch’s famous triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights (1495-1510). Unlike Bosch, Römisch condenses heaven, earth, and hell into one image. Clusters of naked bodies that look as if they’d come from an Eakins painting huddle throughout a clearing in the woods; they are wearing animal masks as if they were so many Nick Bottoms from Midsummer Night’s Dream. Salvation or damnation are not something to be achieved or to be suffered but a matter of being in the right place at the right time and in the company of the right people. Or, as Wallace Stevens would phrase it, “Let be be finale of seem.”
If the animality of humans emerges as concern in much of these images, the “Born on the 4th of July” series exchanges anthropological generalizing for a sharper focus on politics, specifically the troubling resurgence of nationalism in Römisch’s adopted country. The series also reflects the complicated feelings engendered in the mind of the European immigrant by the Boston fireworks. The essay accompanying Römisch’s series, written specifically for Od Review and appended to this feature, explains how the displays inevitably reminded Römisch of the exploding bombs, flares, and rockets from past wars waged by the United States, images that had nightly, through their television sets, drifted into the homes of millions of Americans at dinner time.
In Römisch’s series, what initially seems like a phosphorescent jellyfish shooting through a dark sea quickly morphs, assuming the shape of palm tree or an illuminating fountain. Or it turns into an image of a nuclear explosion, with all kinds of matter flung into space and floating around, or a surreal view of a blooming meadow painted into the sky, or into a fine web of millions of illuminated corpuscules attached to the ceiling of the heavens, a fake Milky Way produced by chemical reactions and competent pyrotechnicians.
As the spectacle subsides, the fireworks disintegrate, and all those fake stars and planets and clouds tumble to the ground, a massive shower of dust, smoke, and plastic debris, and darkness sets in again. Humans are absent from Römisch’s series. None of the photographs show the jubilant crowd. Yet Römisch knows that fireworks are—as are our wars, and nations, and borders, too—deeply human products, painful reminders that, unless we change course, the kinds of sublimity we celebrate today will continue to be the inauthentic ones we have launched ourselves.
Mark Römisch on his “Born on the 4th of July” series,
translated by Christoph Irmscher
A colorful crowd lines the banks of the Charles, the river wending its way through Boston. Thousands sit, squat, and lie, on folding chairs and picnic blankets, next to the ice boxes they have dragged through the sweltering summer heat. The mood is relaxed. Loudspeakers announce the evening’s grand finale. Instantly, the crowd’s attention is focused on a long bark, barely visible in the dark, anchored in the middle of the river. A moment of expectant silence. Then a roaring hiss rips through the air over the water. A dozen rockets, looking like the fanned fingers of a hand, catapult into the night sky. Even before they reach the highest point of their ascent, they burst apart, with resonant peals of thunder, into so many crystals of light. The jubilant shouts of thousands erupt on the banks of the river.
The July 4th fireworks have begun.
America is celebrating Independence Day. The end of British colonization and the beginning of a promise.
Rocket after rocket, following upon each other in constantly accelerating rhythms, illuminate the dark-as-night sky. What began as a rain of luminous crystals now thickens into structures of light, subsiding as emotions surge. The dull blasts are beginning to settle down heavily on the thousandfold Ohs and Ahs of the crowd. Flakes of ash and showers of singed shreds of paper come snowing down. The contours of the city on the opposite bank vanish in a veil of smoke, fire, and garish detonations. The air is saturated with the acrid smell of burned gunpowder.
Pictures from nights long past come back to me. Pale, low resolution night vision shots filling the television screen, shimmering greenly, weirdly and absurdly magical. Flares, rockets, bombs, detonations. Images from the 1990-91 Gulf War, the first multimedia war. Live from Baghdad on CNN. Later, exploding cluster bombs over Afghanistan, their deadly payloads, during subsequent explosions, spraying, like shattering balls of glass, over the cities below. Finally, the cruise missiles dispatched to Syria. “Picturesque,” as some commentators and politicians describe the videos of nighttime rocket launches, captivated by the aesthetics of fire, the symbolism of power and destructiveness. “War is beautiful,” opined David Shields in The New York Times.
For the longest time now, fireworks only have illuminated the skies over American cities on Independence Day. If American soldiers are, at the same time, taking part in combat in multiple areas of conflict outside the country, folks at home immerse themselves in celebrations of the absence of war, sending sparkling, rather than lethal, rockets into the skies, celebrating the unparalleled opportunities and freedoms that distinguish this nation.
Freedoms that, some believe, must be won on the battlefields of this world. Many veterans of these battles stay away from the greatest celebrations of their country. Detached from the shimmering glory of war, reduced to their destructive core, the exploding fireworks send those former defenders of American freedom back to the traumatic pictures and the soundscape of war.
In 2019, the European immigrant similarly senses a gradual, subliminal shift in the perception of this country, once celebrated as the great harbinger of peace. The overpowering luster of U.S. democracy has faded. What remains is a distant shimmer on the horizon, a monochromatic echo of the former promise of freedom and equality, of openness and cooperation.
The fireworks reach their climax. Happy, amazed faces bathed in red, white, and blue cascades of light. A final eruption illuminates the skies over the city as if it were daylight. An explosion of such blinding, powerful luminousness that the camera chip can only record a burned image, frazzled at the edges. The celebrations are nearing the end. Waving little flags, the crowd streams back into the city. Happily united for the moment. They are celebrating the awareness of freedom and independence.
The real and felt absence of war.
Introduction © Christoph Irmscher. Text on “Born on 4th of July” series © Mark Römisch.