Robert Hirsch

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

Page 4, Continued

RH: How have recent world events influenced 100 SUNS?

ML: I was working on this project before 9/11. I spent the summer of 2001 looking at explosions on the computer monitor in Photoshop. Then September rolled around and I was looking at another kind of monitor with explosions in real time. I wished I was a fireman, or a doctor or somebody with a more direct and effective role in society and culture. What could I do? I moped around for a few days and then realized I was already doing the only thing that I could do, was doing it well, and was going to keep on doing it.

RH: How did 9/11 affect the outcome of 100 SUNS?

ML: The events of 9/11 occupied my mind as I did my textual research, after the visual sequence was completed. The text became a political document in the sense that the more I learned about the paranoid Cold War excesses of America and the Soviet Union the more parallels I could see between that era and the overreaction that was occurring today. 100 SUNS has a specific gravity 100 times greater than lead. It is a very heavy subject. In the context of "a war on terrorism," which is a war without end, there is no enemy combatant per se, and it makes everything even heavier. I see 100 SUNS as a critique of American projection of power, offering a view from the American Imperial Veranda that hasn't much changed from the 1950s.

STOKES/19 KILOTONS/NEVADA/1957by Michael Light, Digital Images © 2003 Michael Light; courtesy Hosfelt Gallery, San Francisco

RH: What is your reaction to the military's practice giving the nuclear tests names like "Mike" and "Romeo"?

ML: I think it's part of the black humor that pervades this entire dark and dirty enterprise. However, it was important to me not to make a tendentious anti-war document. The point of 100 SUNS is not to hold the viewer's hand and steer them one way or the other. One does not need an outside, expert-style essay telling viewers what to think. I want the viewer to navigate these precipices without any false comfort or preconceptions.

RH: How have viewers responded to 100 SUNS?

ML: Quite a few people have told me they became sick, physically nauseated, after looking at about 20 images. Almost 50% have told me, with guilt on their faces, that they are shocked that they find the images beautiful. Maybe this combination of beauty and horror adds up to the nausea? I think it's part of navigating the precipices. Power is seductive and as long as nuclear weapons exist there is the possibility they will be used again. Fortunately, these images are the only ones of detonations that we have, because with underground testing there is nothing to photograph.

RH: What effect might underground testing have on how we now view the bomb?

ML: Underground testing drastically reduces the fallout problem, which is a major step forward, but the cost is invisibility: "Out of Sight, Out of Mind." Who wants to dwell on horrendous subjects or death? I'd rather take the dog out for a walk. As there are no photographs of underground tests, the practice has ironically made it harder to contemplate the unthinkable. Since the Limited Test Ban Treaty was signed in 1963, about 800 more U.S. tests have been carried out beyond the first 217 atmospheric ones, but people don't think about that because they can't see them.

RH: On a primal level, what is the driving force behind your imagemaking?

ML: You're seriously asking me that question? That's a big one! It is the urge to understand and comprehend life and history. There is something amazing about plucking an instant from the movement of time. It's not reality. It's a series of artificial and aesthetic choices, a form of ordering and coherency that I depend on to give my life meaning. This is the importance of getting behind the camera and making a photograph: it marks the fact that one has been in a certain place at a certain time.

RH: Is it about paying attention?

ML: Absolutely. One isn't worried about the rent or getting a package off to UPS. It shows one is paying attention to something one thinks is important. It's a reassuring memento of comprehension; proof one has been alive at a particular moment and has had a particular experience. Even in this age of digital manipulation, photographs continue to hold a huge degree of power and meaning. They're beautiful and sad and complicated because every stoppage of time refers to the motion of time. I struggle against photography. I struggle against the fact that it is silent, that it is just a piece of paper on the wall, often presented in a tedious white matt frame. I struggle against these sacred cows. And healthy opposition is good, but essentially I am a believer in the intense meaning of photographs.

RH: How does that opposition affect your own imagemaking?

ML: In my work, whether it is negative-making or archival, I am always an environmentalist. If I can enter into an historical framework, like the Apollo space missions, and reconfigure the moon in landscape terms, I am serving the landscape and the environment. I am doing something that I care about. If I can go into the period from 1945-1962 and do a complicated portrait of the American bomb then I am speaking for those landscapes that were detonated upon, while hopefully illuminating something useful about us as well.

• • •

Atomic Testing Museum, Las Vegas, NV, www.ntshf.orgAtomic Time: Pure Science and Seduction, Jim Sanborn, Washington, D.C.: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 2003
The Bomb: A Life, Gerard J. DeGroot, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005
Edward Teller: The Real Dr. Strangelove, Peter Goodchild, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004
Face To Face With the Bomb: Nuclear Reality After the Cold War (photographs), Paul Shambroom with an introduction by Richard Rhodes. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003
Hiroshima, John Hersey, New York: Knopf, 1946
Hiroshima in America: A Half Century of Denial, Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell, New York: Putnam, 1995
Hiroshima: The Story of the First Atom Bomb, Clive A. Lawton, Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2004
The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986
The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb, Richard Rhodes, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995
Nuclear Landscapes, Peter Goin, Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1991
Picturing the Bomb: Photographs from the Secret World of the Manhattan Project, Rachel Fermi, Esther Samra and Richard Rhodes, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995
Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Hidden Wars of the American West, Rebecca Solnit, San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1994
The Traveler’s Guide to Nuclear Weapons: A Journey Through America’s Cold War Battlefields, James M. Maroncelli and Timothy L. Karpin, Silverdale, WA: Historical Odysseys Publishers, 2002
(DVD of text, images and maps)Trinity and Beyond: The Atomic Bomb Movie narrated by William Shatner. Director’s Cut DVD includes 3D Bonus Section (with glasses), Thousand Oaks, CA: Goldhil Home Media, 1999

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