The title 100 SUNS originates from Robert Oppenheimer’s recitation of certain lines of the Bhagavad Gita upon seeing the first nuclear detonation in 1945: “Brighter than the light of 1000 Suns, now I am become Death, the Destroyer.”
100 SUNS is broken up in a bifurcated landscape way – into “Desert” and “Ocean.” It evolved out of my concern for the environment and how we treat that environment, as well as my concerns with the fundamental building blocks of landscape perception and representation. The nuclear landscape is one of power and violence that needed to be described, particularly in terms of the way it irrevocably altered the cultural mechanics of landscape and the environment after 1945, after humans themselves – for the first time ever – became architects of the sublime. Up to that point the sublime was the sole province of either “God” or “Nature.”
The images in 100 SUNS were physical 4×5 and 8×10 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 of 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.
This project is about beauty, horror, violence and seduction being all tangled up with each other. I have not aestheticised the bomb – rather, the bomb is inherently aesthetic. If a viewer finds these images beautiful then they need to examine their own response carefully. 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.
The tragedy of the Great American Sound and Light Show shown in 100 SUNS is that civilization’s arguably greatest triumph – that 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.
In the context of “a war on terrorism,” which is to say 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.
MICHAEL LIGHT is a San Francisco-based photographer and bookmaker focused on the environment and how contemporary American culture relates to it. His work is concerned both with the politics of that relationship and the seductions of landscape representation. He has exhibited extensively nationally and internationally, and his work has been collected by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Getty Research Library, The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The New York Public Library, and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, among others.
For the last fifteen years, Light has aerially photographed over settled and unsettled areas of American space, pursuing themes of mapping, vertigo, human impact on the land, and various aspects of geologic time and the sublime. A private pilot, he is currently working on an extended aerial photographic survey of the arid Western states, and in 2007 won a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in Photography to pursue this project. Radius Books published the first of a planned multi-volume series of this work, Bingham Mine/Garfield Stack, in Fall 2009. The second, LA Day/LA Night, was released in April 2011.
Light is also known for reworking familiar historical photographic and cultural icons with a landscape-driven perspective by sifting through public archives. His first such project, FULL MOON (1999), used lunar geological survey imagery made by the Apollo astronauts to show the moon both as a sublime desert and an embattled point of first human contact. His most recent archival project, 100 SUNS (2003), focused on the politics and landscape meanings of military photographs of U.S. atmospheric nuclear detonations from 1945 to 1962. 21 editions of Light’s books have been published worldwide.