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The true age of shock and awe, seen in 100 photos of nuclear explosions

Wednesday, Oct 15 2003
The true age of shock and awe was ushered in almost six decades ago, when members of the covert Manhattan Project detonated a sphere of plutonium over the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945. The world's first nuclear explosion erupted with a force approximately equal to 20,000 tons of TNT, creating a fireball so intense eyewitnesses compared it to the noonday sun, followed by an eerie violet-blue mushroom cloud. Even before studies showed that the fallout blew 200 miles from ground zero, project director J. Robert Oppenheimer claimed to have witnessed "the shatterer of worlds."

Oppenheimer didn't know how right he was. It's hard to calculate the damage caused by the next 1,053 nuclear tests, which continued both above- and below-ground until halted in 1992, but World War II's Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs killed a combined total of more than 260,000 people.

This grim back story lends both majesty and dread to 100 Suns, the forthcoming photo book from artist Michael Light, also an exhibit of the same name opening this week at the Hosfelt Gallery. Light visited the U.S. National Archives and Los Alamos National Laboratory, camera in hand, to rephotograph 100 images depicting aboveground nuclear tests. The result is a series of pictures that are aesthetically stunning yet imbued with an awesome, appalling power, depicting mushroom clouds, brilliant explosions, and military observers watching at close range with little protection besides a pair of dark glasses.

Many images are chillingly similar, yet each has its own unique beauty. Climax, 61 Kilotons, Nevada, 1953 is one of the finest shots in the collection, capturing an ominous cloud hovering over a column of smoke illuminated against the night sky. Dog, 81 Kilotons, Enewetak Atoll, 1951 shows soldiers watching an explosion. Lined up in wooden beach chairs, each clad in eye-shielding spectacles, the men look like those 1950s photos of audiences watching 3-D movies in their two-toned glasses. Baker, 21 kilotons, Bikini Atoll, 1946 is even ghastlier, with the palm trees in the foreground adding a hint of tropical beauty to contrast with the massive destruction at the image's center.

"There's a cinematic quality to the work," says Dianne Dec, Hosfelt's director, who notes that most of the original photographers were stationed at a Hollywood facility to draw upon the latest film technology and local talent pool. "There was a reason for that. [The United States] wanted images that would advertise our capacity for power, especially during the Cold War. We wanted these images to frighten and stun rival nations. We wanted to say, 'Ha, ha, ha, look what we can do.'"

While the "100 Suns" exhibition does show what we can do -- in a horrifyingly beautiful melding of art and history, politics and science -- we hope it also shows what we'll never do again.

About The Author

Joyce Slaton


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