Loomis Dean was a veteran Life Magazine photographer who shot pictures of circus clowns, crown princes, celebrities, Madagascar lemurs, and SS Andrea Doria survivors in a five-decade long career. His low-key manner disarmed his subjects and put them at ease, enabling Dean capture such images as the prince of Liechtenstein in his long johns and Noël Coward in a tuxedo in the desert.
In the spring of 1955, as the Cold War intensified and the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union escalated at a shocking pace, America—as it had many times before—detonated an atomic weapon in the Nevada desert. The test was not especially noteworthy. The weapon’s “yield” was not dramatically larger or smaller than that of previous A-bombs: the brighter-than-the-sun flash of light, the mushroom cloud and the staggering power unleashed by the weapon were all byproducts familiar to anyone who had either witnessed or paid attention to coverage of earlier tests.
Here, LIFE.com presents pictures made in the Nevada desert by photographer Loomis Dean shortly after a 1955 atomic bomb test. These are not “political” pictures. They are eerily beautiful, unsettling photographs made at the height of the Cold War, when the destructive power of the detonation was jaw-droppingly huge—although miniscule compared to today’s truly terrifying thermonuclear weapons. As LIFE told its readers in its May 16, 1955, issue (in which some of these photos appeared):
“A day after the 44th nuclear test explosion in the U.S. rent the still Nevada air, observers cautiously inspected department store mannequins which were poised disheveled but still haughty on the sand sand in the homes of Yucca Flat. The figures were residents of an entire million-dollar village built to test the effects of an atomic blast on everything from houses to clothes to canned soup.
The condition of the figures—one charred, another only scorched, another almost untouched—showed that the blast, which was equivalent to 35,000 tons of TNT, was discriminating in its effects. As one phase of the atomic test, the village and figures help guide civil defense planning and make clear that even amid atomic holocaust careful planning could save lives.”