Barry Hughes


59 colour digital photographs, 2012.

The Conqueror (1956) directed by Dick Powel and starring John Wayne and Susan Hayward was shot on location at Snow Canyon State Park in Utah, USA during May-August of 1954. Snow Canyon is located 220 km downwind of Yucca Flats, Nevada, where above ground atomic testing lasted from 1951-1953 including 11 tests named Operation Upshot-Knothole in 1953.

It was widely rumored that the director, leading stars and a total of 91 of the 220 crew all died of cancer directly relating to the radiation fallout from the previous nuclear testing in the area, helped largely by a 1980 article in the November 10, 1980 issue of People magazine.

However, contemporary and subsequent testing of the area for any hazardous material and related health issues have consistently contradicted the rumors, and it is now a recognised fact that none of the 91 crew could have contracted cancer from Operation Upshot-Knothole due mainly to the type and location of testing, fallout present and the time scale involved. Data collected in the Snow Canyon area in May of 1954 indicated the radiation levels were essentially background.

What was more probable for the high levels of cancer in the cast and crew was the sheer volume of smoking cigarettes at that time; John Wayne for example smoked five packs a day and contracted lung cancer in 1964. Furthermore, the National Cancer Institute of America stated that “the overall incidence of being diagnosed with cancer in a person’s lifetime is about 40%.” Thus in a cohort of 220 people, 88 would be diagnosed with cancer at some point, 91 being within the expected range.

The myth surrounding The Conqueror has continued to linger, and it was this coincidental story which I have attempted to capture by photographing the landscape as it appears in the original film. The series follows the narrative of the film from opening shot to climax and closing shot. Exploiting the camera and TV screen’s natural distortions of colour and pixelation, or visual noise, the resulting images seem to buzz with the supposed radioactivity believed to have been present during the filming of The Conqueror. The title Metastatic relates to both metastasis (a Greek word meaning “displacement” and a secondary cancerous growth formed by transmission of cancerous cells from a primary growth located elsewhere in the body), and also the static electrical charges commonly associated with TV screens.


BARRY W. HUGHES has a BA in Fine Art Media, National College of Art & Design, Ireland. His practice centres on photography and video which have been published and exhibited internationally, including solo shows in Ireland, Germany and China. The founding editor/publisher of SuperMassiveBlackHole online photography magazine, he has since written for Hotshoe magazine, curated exhibitions, reviewed portfolios and given talks for the likes of Belfast Photo Festival, PhotoIreland Festival and PhotoBook London. Hughes lives and works in Dublin, Ireland.

Hughes chooses everyday objects and situations to explore ideas such as incidence, coincidence and accident, motivated by a desire to understand the tension between the intentional and unintentional gesture. Many of his works are based on the reinterpretation of social, scientific or psychological histories and models which ultimately exist as visual metaphors.