Harley Cowan (’96 Arch.), on a tour at Hanford’s B Reactor a number of years ago, first heard about the old wooden swivel chair set in front of archaic electronic panels from an original occupant. The tour docent, Dee McCullough, was one of 40 people who gathered in the control room on September 26, 1944, when the reactor first went critical. The former Hanford engineer told Cowan’s tour group that he had no idea what would happen next, nor even the reactor’s purpose.

McCullough had passed away by the time Cowan returned to B Reactor and Hanford, but Cowan spotted what was clearly a replacement chair at the same panels. McCullough’s story ran through his mind, so he asked to see the original chair and then captured it on film. Cowan had returned to Hanford as part of a research fellowship in 2017 to photograph historic sites within the new Manhattan Project National Historical Park. The original chair was one of many images that gave Cowan a feel for Hanford’s historic places.

Harley Cowan presenting
Harley Cowan. In April 2019, Cowan was inducted into the Atomic Photographers Guild, an international group of photographers dedicated to making visible all facets of the nuclear age. (Photo Cory Kaufman)


“There were so many ‘wow’ moments,” says Cowan. “I was able to access areas I had never seen before.” At the Hanford Site, Cowan took photographs with a large format film camera, following the Secretary of the Interior’s 1933 guidelines for historic documentation, which continue to require black and white sheet film, hand processed, for the Library of Congress archives.

Cowan, a professional architect and photographer, had long been fascinated by Hanford. He grew up in Richland and worked in the nuclear industry during high school and while attending WSU. It was a dream project to photograph B Reactor, including some areas off limits to tourists—and requiring protective gear—as well as around the rest of the Hanford site.

The first showing of the photographs was at Hanford itself in the spring. They even had a notable guest: former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who was born in Pullman and grew up in Richland, and whose father worked at Hanford.

In addition to a display at Hanford Site, Cowan worked with WSU architecture professor Phil Gruen to contribute photography to the Washington State Archipedia website, a wiki for historic sites throughout the United States. Gruen and Robert Franklin, historian at WSU Tri-Cities and assistant director of its Hanford History Project, provided written content.

Franklin and Jillian Gardner-Andrews, coordinator of Hanford History Project, are also assisting Cowan with identifying new subjects to photograph to tell a broader story about domestic life around the Manhattan Project.

Cowan will provide ten to twelve prints for display at the Manhattan Project National Historical Park visitor center in Richland from April to October 2019, as part of the Manhattan Project’s seventy-fifth anniversary.

He will also have a solo exhibition for the Manhattan Project photography at Camerawork Gallery, the nation’s oldest, continuously running fine art photography gallery, in Portland, Oregon, from August 3 to 30, 2019.

Control room at Hanford Site
Control Room, Manhattan Project Nat’l Historical Park, 2017. (Photo Harley Cowan)


Web extra

Gallery: Images of Hanford by Harley Cowan