Robert Hirsch

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

Page 3, Continued

RH: Have critics accused you of aestheticizing the bomb?

ML: No, though I have certainly worried that they would. Thankfully everyone seems to get it. 100 SUNS is about beauty, horror, violence and seduction being all tangled up with each other. I have not aestheticized the bomb—rather, the bomb is inherently aesthetic. If a viewer finds these images beautiful then they need to carefully examine their own response. I have worked with what is present in the images. We are loath to admit it, but we don't know how to deal with things that both attract and repulse us.

MIKE/10.4 MEGATONS/ENEWETAK ATOLL/1952 by Michael Light, Digital Images © 2003 Michael Light; courtesy Hosfelt Gallery, San Francisco

RH: Where does the title 100 SUNS come from?

ML: It is from Robert Oppenheimer's recitation of lines from the Bhagavad-Gita upon seeing the first nuclear detonation in 1945: "Brighter than the light of a thousand suns, now I am become death, the destroyer." My book has 100 images, and I wanted to emphasize a nuclear reaction is a kind of star brought to Earth, as well as to reference Oppenheimer, who is considered the father of the atomic bomb.

RH: How did you select images?

ML: I work intuitively, allowing my eye to guide my selection process. I go into archives in stages, getting a sense of what's there, which allows a book to slowly emerge from the archival materials themselves. There are always surprises, which is part of the fun. Often those surprises lead to a fleshing out of an idea - in the case of 100 SUNS, discovering images beyond the typically known mushroom cloud.

RH: How does your intuitive working process and the surprises it brings affect the structure of your book?

ML: The biggest surprise with 100 SUNS was finding images of the bomb detonating with people in the foreground, often close to the blast point. They are intimate, human and vulnerable pictures, and have provided me with a narrative rhythm I was not expecting to be there. How to make a story from 100 images of the same thing? Suddenly I could move from the vast and the impersonal back to the human, and back out. My discovery of such intense images made me realize I needed them not just for visual interest, but also for the structural rationale of the book.

RH: What is the driving force of your visual mindset?

ML: I work on a primal level. All my work, whether it's in an airplane or on the moon, starts with myself wanting to go someplace and understand that place. I come at a subject from a profoundly photographic level. I am not interested in pictures that ultimately don't work as pictures.

RH: Do you see your bookmaking process as a journey?

ML: Yes, I first make a visual journey for myself, along intuitive and psychological lines, and hopefully others can follow it as well. The journey is always textless. In 100 SUNS, the notes on the photographs, captions and a nuclear chronology at the end of the book provide an introduction to the history, technology and science of the bomb, but those ways of understanding the subject are secondary to the overall visual endeavor, however essential they may be. This journey begins with a point of light in space and ends with the Apocalypse. The progression hopefully takes viewers on a voyage they would not otherwise go on and leaves them with a changed perception of an important series of events.

RH: Why a textless presentation?

ML: I want my imagery to be as physical and immediate as possible, and textless, filmic progressions of still images offer a more sculptural form, and a deeper psychological experience. I am frustrated with the formal photo book tradition of white space around images with text in tasteful Palatino.

RH: What artist most informs your work?

ML: A touchstone is Gerhard Richter and his lifetime work "Atlas," circa 1964-2005, which includes over 5000 found photographs, drawings and diagrams. Richter bravely swims in the roaring river of imagery that constantly surrounds us and creates a certain coherency. Depending on where and how "Atlas" is exhibited, there can be 15 or 20 rooms of images, each having a theme - sunsets, criminals, seascapes, postcards of cities and so forth. I am a photographer who likes to make images, but I also want to get a sense and understanding of images that have already been made. I don't fabricate worlds; I pay attention to the things that already surround us. In "Atlas" Richter does this with a dark and melancholy scope.

RH: How does 100 SUNS approach the landscape concepts of the beautiful and the sublime?

ML: The book is about power and its seductions and terrors. Nuclear detonations invariably and disturbingly raise issues about beauty, the sublime and the created sublime, as well as a multitude of vital issues, like self-induced annihilation!

RH: It seems these issues of the sublime, power and violence function on natural and man-made levels throughout the work.

ML: It's true that these elements pervade the book, and that they function on a multi-valent level. I think anyone doing serious contemporary landscape production has to deal with violence. The story of our country is incredibly violent, and what we are doing to the environment today is also extraordinarily violent.

RH: Do you see this as a general lack of regard for, and knowledge about, history?

ML: Absolutely. We build things, and we just as quickly - just as effectively - abandon them. Time and space in this country are manipulated without regard for our surroundings, which is one of the reasons why violence needs to be examined within a discussion of the contemporary landscape. 100 SUNS meditates on moments of what might be called the "fabricated sublime," which are generated from a militarized universe of destruction and mass annihilation. At the same time, our country is full of splendorous places of beauty, and I am just as much a romantic sucker for those moments of splendor as anyone else. They keep me going. Sometimes it's a dark splendor. The tragedy of the Great American Sound and Light Show shown in 100 SUNS is that civilization's arguably greatest triumph—the point at which tool-bearing humans figured out how to ignite their own stars—was immediately turned into its darkest hour of destruction and shame, because the knowledge was immediately put to use for purposes of warfare. Humans are talented monkeys, but we are not good at taking responsibility for what we do. Ignoring history only exacerbates this seemingly intrinsic shortcoming.

Continued on page 4

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