Pretty poison

A review of 100 Suns by Michael Light

Copyright 2004 by Jandos Rothstein


Michael Light’s 100 Suns, a book of photography documenting the era of aboveground nuclear testing, revisits a dark chapter of U.S. history. Fifteen years after the end of the Cold War, leafing through the thick black pages of this coffee-table tome, one feels surprise, followed by a kind of embarrassed pleasure--horrendous and destructive, atomic explosions can also be beautiful.


But if 100 Suns sparks a schism between the reaction one has and the reaction one believes is appropriate, perhaps it is intentional. Its overwhelming nature--photo after photo of brilliant blasts and billowing mushroom clouds--is part of the point. Light doggedly documents the futility of the nuclear arms race with its repetition and incremental triumphs, but avoids the two cases in which atomic weapons were used on civilian targets. 100 Suns reminds readers of the trillions spent on nuclear pursuits, one enormously expensive and poisonous fire-cracker at a time.


The book contains both visual and historical surprises. Rather than reduce the arms race to a struggle for bigger and bigger booms, 100 Suns also shows the less considered movement toward miniaturized weapons that some physicists supported, according to Light, because of the growing realization that the largest weapons had no practical use. Photos in the book range from the 15-megaton "Bravo" explosion in 1954 to the comparatively tiny 18-ton "Little Feller I" explosion of 1962. "It is these smaller tactical nukes that have the most dangerous legacy today," says Light, "as the forebears of the 'bunker buster' bombs that were briefly contemplated during the Afghanistan conflict."


Visually, 100 Suns humanizes the bomb tests by including photographs of soldiers witnessing or reacting to blasts. Some shots show soldiers going about their business, seemingly oblivious to what must be a just passed shockwave; others show troops hunched in tight trenches. A particularly strong pair of images from 1955 shows a small group of soldiers assuming a "duck-and-cover" posture near ground zero of the 22-kiloton "Met" detonation at the Nevada Test Site, and then, in a second frame, turning to watch the emerging mushroom cloud with a mixture of awe and youthful bravado.


100 Suns documents 69 of 216 U.S. aboveground tests. Light organizes the 100 photos in two broad sections, dividing them into "desert" (continental tests) and "ocean" (on an island or above water). The notorious "Trinity" and "Mike" shots are included; a single photo illustrates Trinity, but Mike is lavishly documented.


Light has not cropped the images, giving many of the glossy pages a hand-worn feel. Scribbles, broken three-ring binder holes, bits of tape--archive detritus seems to comment wryly on the momentous events depicted in the photos.


The black and white images are sharpest and most familiar to those who have seen old newsreels of nuclear explosions. The color photos exhibit a glorious range of hues--from dark purples, to hot yellows, to wine reds. Captured in two dimensions, it is easy to forget what the strange-looking clouds are. The "Hood" cloud of 1957 could almost be an odd coral growth; the "Orange" detonation of 1958--the only extremely high altitude explosion in the book--could be mistaken for a jellyfish.


It will come as a surprise to many readers that the photos in 100 Suns--all culled from public archives--are copyrighted by the author. Light told me he feels protective of an image after he has worked with it for a while and that he copyrights them because "it makes good business sense... Anyone can go to the National Archive and find the original, but if they use mine, they have to pay." This is Light's second book of appropriated public-archive images (the first documented the manned lunar missions). Light contends that he makes changes to the imagery "sometimes noticeable, sometimes not so notice able" that make them uniquely his, but this is at odds with the text of 100 Suns, in which he says the photos "have been reproduced here with faithfulness to the appearance of the particular print."


In the end, 100 Suns presents a vivid portrayal of an execution that we have avoided (so far), driving that point home in a visceral way that history texts usually do not.

Jandos Rothstein, Editorial Design, Publication Branding and Design Journalism
Copyright 2005—2008, Jandos Rothstein
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