Robert Hirsch

100 Suns and the Nuclear Sublime:
An Interview With Michael Light

Page 2,Continued

RH: What are your childhood memories about the bomb?

ML: I was fortunate that my childhood and youth were untouched by fear of, or for that matter, any knowledge of the bomb. I don't recall any "duck and cover" exercises in grade school. My first engagement with nuclear issues was reading Jonathan Schell's Fate of The Earth (1982) in college, which left me stunned and profoundly depressed about the human situation.

RH: As an imagemaker do you think there is any inherent difference in the images that you create in real time with your camera and those that you discover in an archive?

ML: Sure. I'm the person behind the camera in one, and in the other I'm not. With the images I make out in the landscape I get to select the particular place and time and then choose an exact moment from all other moments available to make the photograph. With archival work I of course don't have these choices. It is a strange thing to go into a project like FULL MOON or 100 SUNS for years at a time, because as a photographer I do get "inside" preexisting images, and come to know them as my own, but there remain big gaps. It's eerie, a primal aspect of the power of the photograph.

RH: Describe your archival image working procedure.

SHASTA/17 KILOTONS/NEVADA/1957 by Michael Light, Digital Images © 2003 Michael Light; courtesy Hosfelt Gallery, San Francisco

ML: I scan or re-photograph either film originals or prints, and eventually they wind up as a large file. I live in these pictures on a digital level for long periods of time and become deeply attuned to their subtleties, even though I did not have the original experience of having captured them in real time and space. I am not an astronaut so going to the moon is not possible. Other events, like atmospheric nuclear testing, would be closed to me even if they were occurring in the present. I can't go back into history, but archival imagery is the next best thing that one can get to actually being there. On occasion I'll physically get to an "archival" location to gain a fuller sense. For instance, with 100 SUNS, I went to the Bikini Atoll in 2003 to do aerial photography. It was a cathartic pilgrimage for me as a photographer. I needed to see this landscape - the clouds, the light and what remained in the land after so much focused violence. The physical act of photographing at one of the test sites was a way for me to complete a circle of meaning.

RH: What about issues of authorship and meaning?

ML: I don't particularly care about photographic authorship. Whether an astronaut who doesn't even have a viewfinder makes an image, a robotic camera, a military photographer, or Mike Light really doesn't matter. What matters is the context of the final photograph and the meaning it generates within that context. While I am very involved in making my own negatives, I've always been just as interested in trying to make some sense out of the trillions of images that already exist. There is no shortage of information out there. What we need are data miners who possess good intellectual prisms and aesthetic senses to create knowledge. The relationship between authorship and meaning is changing, and will continue to do so as information logarithmically explodes.

RH: Do you bring the same skill set and sensibility to bear on subjects regardless of whether you are working from an archive image or photographing directly from life?

ML: I hope so. I don't claim ownership to archival images in the public domain. We all own these and like anyone else I have the right to engage with these images. What I do with these found photographs is to contextualize them and create a story. This is very much my story, the thing that I bring to the party and something unique to my sensibility. That vision is the same whether I am going out and making my own negatives or putting together something based on pre-existing imagery. And all of my work, either archival or freshly generated, finds its home in the book form. Sometimes the books are commercially published and democratic, other times they are handmade by me in small editions and acquired by elite audiences. Photography is made for the book form, unlike painting or sculpture.

RH: How do you go about interpreting these archival images?

ML: With great restraint. I personally feel that iconic subjects, and the archives that house them, are not the right arenas for me to get overtly "artistic" or "inventive." I have a profound sense of respect for the inherent qualities of these images and work outward from there. The images in 100 SUNS were physical 4 x 5-inch and 8 x 10-inch prints, most of which were faded, funky copies of copies that had been bent and worn and written upon over the years. They conveyed an intense sense of objecthood, and seemed almost sculptures from that particular historical era. It was important to me to capture them as objects, then, rather than cropping them and getting rid of their "defects," or making a modernist frame where the photography disappears and one falls seamlessly into the scene. They were visual nuggets from a particular cultural time and space. I do not use Photoshop creatively, but rather as a production tool -as a thorough but basically conventional darkroom for making exhibition prints.

RH: What technical means do you employ to alter images and how does their use affect notions of the truth of archival images?

ML: I adjust for contrast, density, color balance and saturation, and I spot out blemishes such as dust. I try not to alter the cultural content of the images, but fine printers indulge in an interpretive process involving a thousand professional judgment calls all the time. I try not to remove information, and I never add information that was not in the original. For instance, if a 40-year-old color print has turned magenta then I will compensate to make it look as I think it would have originally. I realize this kind of manipulation can enrage people who believe in the idea of the photographic document as truth, but anybody who has spent time with cameras and photographs knows that images, like gravestone rubbings, are no more than impressions of the truth.

RH: How does this affect the veracity of the images?

ML: What if the type of film used to photograph a particular blast recorded it as green when the blast was really red? Does the image then lack veracity? Likewise, looking at a faded print of the green blast now gone magenta, how can we know what the exact "truth" was, or is now? Is it the original red blast, the green film or the magenta print? All the lurid colors and intensity you see in 100 SUNS were in the original prints. I stay faithful to what's in the original print or film, but I do make a "fine" print. In this way I alter the archival originals, but I don't feel that my "interpretations" are deleterious to photographic "truth" or "veracity," because I'm not a true believer in either.

Continued on page 3

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