As the world warms, summer’s thunderstorms grow more frequent and intense. And now when those yellow-gray clouds begin to gather late in the afternoon, the camera phones begin to come out. The photos stream from office conference rooms onto Twitter, often perked up with a digital filter that heightens their tonal contrast and thus their theatricality. Today, we are all amateur movie-poster designers, and a sharing culture means everyone gets a shot at the marquee. As the skies darkened yet again on August 5, the comedy writer Lizz Winstead wearily tweeted, “Cue the Instagram NYC cloud pics!”
A few weeks ago, an awesome one went viral. Shot from an airplane taking off from La Guardia by the retired NFL linebacker Dhani Jones, the photo’s central image—a nearly white hyperboloid of water vapor, sweeping up out of the gray-blue urban landscape to meet the dark cloud cover above—was straight out of The Wizard of Oz. Many times the size of a real tornado, the formation looked as though it could suck up pedestrians like the hovering spacecraft in that movie Skyline.
It reminded Max Page of something else, though. Page is a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the author of The City’s End, a beguiling (if uncheery) book about pop-culture images of New York’s destruction, from nineteenth-century morality tales through The Day After Tomorrow. To him, Jones’s photo looked like a very specific image, one that he used on his book’s cover: a 1950 painting by Chesley Bonestell, made to illustrate a story in Collier’s magazine, that depicts a Soviet mushroom cloud rising over midtown Manhattan. “You know, I’ve immersed myself in 200 years of people’s fantasies about destroying New York, and bad weather is one whole genre,” he says. “Really bad storms that hit the city: They capture the idea that nature can decimate New York in a second. You take any of these movies—Armageddon, say—and nature takes over. That’s an underlying theme throughout the genre. New York, the rock, the most important, permanent city, so easily wiped away.”
The nature of the photos themselves helps the illusion along. Page points out that the pictures that gain the most attention tend to share a particular quality: “They make the city seem small.” Often, they show lots of sky and cloud cover, with Manhattan huddled below, looking vaguely frightened. (The wide-angle lens on a lot of camera phones can exaggerate the effect.) “They can make the Empire State Building look like this little crayon,” Page notes. “The ominous clouds say, Here is our great city threatened. To be honest, there’s something energizing about that thought, as horrific as it is.”