Between July 1945 and November 1962 the United States is known to have conducted 216 atmospheric and underwater nuclear tests. After the Limited Test Ban Treaty between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in 1963, nuclear testing went underground. It became literally invisible – but more frequent: the United States conducted a further 723 underground tests until 1992. 100 SUNS documents the era of visible nuclear testing, the atmospheric era, with 100 photographs drawn from the archives at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the U.S. National Archives in Maryland. It includes previously classified material from the clandestine Lookout Mountain Air Force Station based in Hollywood, whose film directors, cameramen, and still photographers were sworn to secrecy.
The title, 100 SUNS, refers to the response by J. Robert Oppenheimer to the world’s first nuclear explosion in New Mexico when he quoted a passage from the Bhagavad Gita, the classic Vedic text, “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst forth at once in the sky, that would be like the splendor of the Mighty One… I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” This was Oppenheimer’s attempt to describe the otherwise indescribable. 100 SUNS likewise confronts the indescribable by presenting without embellishment the stark evidence of the tests at the moment of detonation. Since the tests were either conducted in Nevada or the Pacific the book is divided between the desert and the ocean. Each photograph is presented with the name of the test, its explosive yield in kilotons or megatons, the date and the location. The enormity of the events recorded is contained by understated neutrality of bare data. Interspersed within the sequence of explosions are images of awestruck witnesses.
The evidence of these photographs is terrifying in its implication and also profoundly disconcerting as a spectacle. The visual grandeur of such imagery is balanced by the chilling facts provided at the end of the book in the detailed captions, a chronology of the development of nuclear weaponry, and an extensive bibliography.
MICHAEL LIGHT is a San Francisco-based photographer and bookmaker focused on the environment and how contemporary American culture relates to it. His work is concerned both with the politics of that relationship and the seductions of landscape representation. He has exhibited extensively nationally and internationally, and his work has been collected by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Getty Research Library, The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The New York Public Library, and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, among others.
For the last fifteen years, Light has aerially photographed over settled and unsettled areas of American space, pursuing themes of mapping, vertigo, human impact on the land, and various aspects of geologic time and the sublime. A private pilot, he is currently working on an extended aerial photographic survey of the arid Western states, and in 2007 won a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in Photography to pursue this project. Radius Books published the first of a planned multi-volume series of this work, Bingham Mine/Garfield Stack, in Fall 2009. The second, LA Day/LA Night, was released in April 2011.
Light is also known for reworking familiar historical photographic and cultural icons with a landscape-driven perspective by sifting through public archives. His first such project, FULL MOON (1999), used lunar geological survey imagery made by the Apollo astronauts to show the moon both as a sublime desert and an embattled point of first human contact. His most recent archival project, 100 SUNS (2003), focused on the politics and landscape meanings of military photographs of U.S. atmospheric nuclear detonations from 1945 to 1962. 21 editions of Light’s books have been published worldwide.