Michael Light

100 SUNS: HOW /14 Kilotons/Nevada/1952
100 SUNS: STOKES /19 Kilotons/Nevada/1957
100 SUNS: SIMON 43 Kilotons/Nevada/1953
100 SUNS: CLIMAX /61 Kilotons/Nevada/1953
100 SUNS: PRISCILLA /37 Kilotons/Nevada/1957
100 SUNS: MET /22 Kilotons/Nevada/1955
100 SUNS: STOKES /19 Kilotons/Nevada/1957
100 SUNS: BAKER 21 Kilotons/Bikini Atoll/1946
100 SUNS: SEQUOIA 5.2 Kilotons/Enewetak Atoll/1958
100 SUNS: DOG 81 Kilotons/Enewetak Atoll/1951
100 SUNS: TRUCKEE 210 Kilotons/Christmas Island/1962
100 SUNS: FRIGATE BIRD 600 Kilotons/Christmas Island/1962
100 SUNS: MOHAWK 360 Kilotons/Enewetak Atoll/1956
100 SUNS: BRAVO 15 Megatons/Bikini Atoll/1954
100 SUNS: YANKEE 13.5 Megatons/Bikini Atoll/1954

005 HOW/14 kilotons/Nevada/1952
0.0008 seconds after detonation, How shows surface mottling and expanding cable fire spikes as it engulfs its tower. How became the Mark-12 bomb, a jet fighter-carried tactical weapon yielding 12 to 14 kilotons that was stockpiled from 1954 to 1962.

008 STOKES/19 kilotons/Nevada/1957
Army soldiers are atomically “conditioned” by viewing Stokes’ fireball, now 700 feet wide and more than 50 times brighter than the sun; despite their shut and shielded eyes, many saw the bones of their arms and hands. Stokes tested the W-30 air-defense and tactical warhead, stockpiled from 1959 to 1979, variably yielding 140 tons to 19 kilotons.

019 SIMON/43 kilotons/Nevada/1953
Soldiers in a trench shield themselves from the detonation. In a moment the ground and air shockwaves will toss them like dolls, then fill their mouths with radioactive dust and render them temporarily blind. 3000 troops witnessed the detonation. Simon’s radioactive debris cloud scattered deadly fallout throughout Southwest Utah, and highly radioactive rain fell in Albany, NY the following day. Simon tested the early versions of the Mark-17 and Mark-24 thermonuclear bombs, which were stockpiled from 1954 to 1957. Yielding 10 to 15 megatons, they were some of the largest and deadliest weapons ever deployed by the U.S.

021 CLIMAX/61 kilotons/Nevada/1953
Low-level aerial image, showing the rising stem debris cloud just about to meet the fireball. The cluster of smoke trails at left are from rockets fired just before detonation to help photographically measure the explosion’s invisible air shock wave. Climax tested the Mark-7 bomb, a small, light tactical nuclear weapon ranging in yield from 8 to 61 kilotons stockpiled from 1952 to 1967.

035 PRISCILLA/37 kilotons/Nevada/1957
In a blue aerial image made with special film, Priscilla’s double-tiered cloud and fire-halo rise upwards amongst the basins and ranges of Nevada’s geology, visible to the horizon.

044 MET/22 kilotons/Nevada/1955
Army soldiers watch MET's rising debris cloud 6 miles away. It tested a Mark-7 bomb, stockpiled from 1952 to 1967, with a variable yield of 8 to 61 kilotons.

045 STOKES/19 kilotons/Nevada/1957
Released into the air just after detonation to test its response to the force of an atomic air shock wave, an unmanned Navy ZSG-3 airship ruptures lodges on the desert floor. The debris cloud rises in the distance. Stokes was a test of the W-30 air-defense and tactical atomic warhead, stockpiled from 1959 to 1979, with a variable yield of 140 tons to 19 kilotons.

057 BAKER/21 kilotons/Bikini Atoll/1946
To left, Baker throws two million gallons of water 10 seconds after detonation over a mile high in a column 2000’ wide, now just beginning to fall and further devastate the decommissioned ghost fleet below. To right, an aerial image shows Baker shrouded by its Wilson condensation cloud, caused by low-pressure behind the blast’s shock wave making water vapor temporarily condense from the humid air. Baker was the first underwater nuclear detonation, and created intense radioactivity.

062 SEQUOIA/5.2 kilotons/Enewetak Atoll/1958
Personnel watch as Sequoia’s Wilson cloud lights the humid Pacific morning. Sequoia likely tested a prototype that led to the tiny W-54 air defense and tactical nuclear warhead (see Little Feller I). The W-54 was stockpiled from 1961 to 1972, with a variable yield of 10 tons to 6 kilotons, and weighed only 50 pounds.

064 DOG/81 kilotons/Enewetak Atoll/1951
V.I.P.s wearing protective goggles watch Dog light the Pacific morning from Adirondack chairs in this image made on the “Officer’s Beach Club Patio.” The explosion lifted 250,000 tons of radioactive reef material to a height of 35,000’. Dog tested the Mark-6 bomb, stockpiled from 1951 to 1962 and yielding 8 to 160 kilotons. Over a thousand were eventually produced.

081 TRUCKEE/210 kilotons/Christmas Island/1962
Truckee’s debris cloud catches the first rays of dawn. Thermonuclear detonations in the humid Pacific created their own localized weather systems. Truckee was a test of the W-58 warhead on a Polaris A-2 missile. The W-58 was stockpiled from 1964 to 1982, yielded 200 kilotons, and was deployed on submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

085 FRIGATE BIRD/600 kilotons/North of Christmas Island/1962
Photographed from a submarine, Frigate Bird’s debris cloud rises thirty miles away. The only U.S. test of a ballistic missile with a live nuclear warhead, Frigate Bird was launched from another submarine and flew 1174 miles in space before re-entry and detonation. It tested the W-47 warhead, stockpiled from 1960 to 1974 and yielding 600 kilotons to 1.2 megatons.

086 MOHAWK/360 kilotons/Enewetak Atoll/1956
Personnel observe Mohawk’s fireball and ring-like condensation cloud structure from Japtan Island. Mohawk was a test of a two-stage thermonuclear device; its crater was 8 feet deep and 1340’ wide.

099 BRAVO/15 megatons/Bikini Atoll/1954
Aerial image from 40,000’ a few minutes after detonation. Bravo was the largest U.S. nuclear test, and was about 2.5 times more powerful than predicted. 85 miles northeast of the detonation, the Japanese fishing vessel Fifth Lucky Dragon was blanketed with such strong fallout radiation that all 23 crewmembers were sickened; radioman Aikichi Kuboyama would die. The remaining crewmembers would leave hospital eight months later. Bravo showed that a high-yield surface detonation could create lethal radiological contamination 120 miles downwind of the blast point, and dangerous contamination to 250 miles downwind.

100 YANKEE/13.5 megatons/Bikini Atoll/1954
The second-largest test detonated by the U.S., Yankee’s fireball roils upwards surrounded by three condensation ring cloud structures. Yankee tested the Mark-17/24 bomb, stockpiled from 1954 to 1957 and yielding 10 to 15 megatons.

100 SUNS

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.

Light is represented by Hosfelt Gallery, San Francisco, Frehrking + Wiesehofer Gallery, Cologne and Stills Gallery, Sydney.