PRINT September 1991


Nuclear Landscapes

Nuclear Landscapes, by Peter Goin. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991, 151 pp., 92 illustrations, $59.95, $29.95 paper.

WHEN I WAS A CHILD growing up in the Bronx, I used to spread out a map of the five boroughs, place the needle leg of a compass at ground zero (Times Square), adjust the pencil leg for one mile, then swivel the pencil leg around, describing the circle that would define the range of blast destruction. In this way I could see if my home would still be standing after, say, a one-megaton nuclear bomb leveled everything within the radius of 40 square blocks. The whole nuclear explosion business fascinated me.

Photographer Peter Goin’s new book, Nuclear Landscapes, could use a little more of the child’s perverse fascination and less of the adult’s social conscience. It would be the better for it. The book starts with a prologue in which Goin explains his aims and methods. A long introduction follows in which he recounts the history of nuclear testing (and includes the usual ironic asides on how government booklets instructed citizens in the art of staying alive by covering their heads, etc., etc.). Integrated into his text are small—2½-by-3-inch—government file photographs of nuclear explosions. Then comes the main part of the book, the full-page color photographs—8½ by 10¾ inches—that Goin himself took, mostly at three locations: the Nevada Test Site in the basin and range; the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in the high desert country of eastern Washington, where the first nuclear reactors were built; and the Marshall Island sites of the Bikini and Eniwetok atolls, where nuclear weapons were tested until 1963.

Goin’s postnuclear landscape photographs employ hard, bright lighting, balanced compositions, subtly bleached colors, and an effective use of scale. Yet it was the considerably smaller government file shots—the actual nuclear explosions—that dominated my attention. Like the most unnerving pornography, the explosions are something you don’t want to think about and can’t look away from. So you think about and look at them. They compel.

The first picture: a black and white photograph of the first atomic explosion on earth, at White Sands, New Mexico, on 16 July 1945, .006 seconds after detonation. A white dome sprouts off the desert floor. It looks plastic, hard, well defined, as if you could bounce a ball off it, put a hinged door in the shell, step in and out of whatever maelstrom’s bubbling away inside. By the third photograph, 15 seconds after detonation, the bubble has metamorphosed into the now familiar mushroom shape, the smoke rising in a column that, at its top, roils and overflows into a cloud 40,000 feet high—11,000 feet higher than Mount Everest.

More small photographs follow, embedded in—yet strangely free of—the text: a 21-kiloton underwater detonation at Bikini that shoots a mushroom-shaped plume of water into the air; a thermonuclear device on Eniwetok Atoll, its breathtaking white mushroom cloud spreading against a brilliant azure sky; an 11-megaton shot from a barge near Bikini Atoll, its mushroom cloud fireballing upward, turning the surrounding ocean and sky blood-orange (it looks like the burning bush). Like serial art, with its similar yet unique pictures, each explosion yields its own mushroom, its own radiance, its own terrible beauty; each cloud possesses its own density, shape, and texture, like cotton candy you want to chew on, snow you want to sculpt, exerting an awful fascination, a hypnotic power, as we dream of what it’s like to be inside—the flash, the heat, the instant vaporization, a nightmare we are compelled to return to, a nightmare that promises secret knowledge (if only of our worst selves).

Then the introduction ends and Goin’s photographs begin. We are back on earth. The first: a desert landscape, mountains in the background, a small stone marker in the foreground. Commemorating what? The photograph doesn’t clue us in. The marker might as well say “Kit Carson passed this way in 1845,” but the caption tells us this is Trinity Site, where the first bomb was detonated.

What struck me again and again in the basin-and-range shots is how ordinary it all looks, this country that seems impervious to nuclear destruction. At one point Goin writes: “The perception of the arid western landscapes as wastelands uniquely suited for massive contamination neither alters nor justifies the damage.” This is true. But neither do his photographs alter our perceptions. One shows two cement walls facing each other, joined overhead by rusting metal. The abandoned remains of a drive-in car wash on the edge of town? No, it’s a surviving trial railroad trestle after a 37-kiloton blast. Another shows a deserted house of blackened wood. From one of the silver-mining ghost towns like Bodie that dot this region? No, it’s a “Doom Town” house, built to measure the force of a blast. Another shot of a canyon filled with boulders suggested to me a flash flood or an earthquake. But the caption says the picture “demonstrates the accelerated erosion caused by nuclear testing nearby. Vibrations from underground testing fracture the rock cliffs, breaking loose huge boulders.”

After a geiger-counter inspection of his body following a possible contamination, Goin writes, “That experience informed my photography, and that subliminal sense of foreboding is an important element in the landscape. The sense of fear. . . is a compelling characteristic of the nuclear landscape.” He also writes, “I am actually photographing something invisible: radiation.” But both fear and radiation are more easily felt than photographed. Reading his text, I kept thinking that there is a basic misunderstanding of purpose here. Goin’s mistake is trying to capture the invisible rather than the visible, which is his job as a photographer, as an artist. This is not some reverse vampire mirror-image thing, where the invisible might become visible in his photographs. What is invisible in the landscape stays invisible.

Goin also writes: “I found that the landscape. . . provoked a feeling unlike the usual Nevada basin and range. Perhaps this feeling was created by a sense of exclusion and mystery. But the landscape was charged.” Yet much of the inhospitable basin and range in itself creates a feeling of mystery, of exclusion, of foreboding, as anyone who has camped there knows. In a similar way his shots of the Marshall Island sites are puzzling: in several the islands look lush, tropical green, like vacation spots, dotted here and there with abandoned structures. A prankster working for an ad agency could get away with slipping a couple of these pictures into a South Seas travel brochure. But Goin is not a prankster or an ironist. He felt fear walking around here; now he presumes his photographs transmit fear.

Defining what he’s up to, Goin writes, “The photographs in Nuclear Landscapes were not taken to convey the sense of beauty found in these areas. In fact, celebrating the beauty of these landscapes contradicts the subject and the intent of the project.” Why? Where does it say beauty can’t be mixed with horror? What was the intent of the project? To demonstrate that nuclear explosions are bad? Thanks a lot. He asks, “Should a photograph appease and soothe the viewer, or challenge the viewer to think about the subject?” Naturally Goin opts for “challeng[ing] the viewer.” But has it occurred to him that precisely the photographs he thinks challenge the viewer do no such thing? That all they do is reaffirm what we, the converted, already know?

It’s just the opposite with the captions that accompany the file photographs of nuclear explosions. Captions aren’t really ever necessary. Before 1945 no one would have known what to make of these photographs; after 1945 everyone knew all too well. The government photographs, not meant to be artistic, nonetheless convey beauty. The mushroom clouds, formally engaging, endowed with a symmetrical autonomy, become impervious to text, to sociological analysis, to captions, to linguistic information of any sort. It’s not an admission of a global death wish to say that these clouds of destruction possess a certain grandeur. Robert Oppenheimer knew this at the dawn of the nuclear age when he quoted from the Bhagavad-Gita and spoke of the radiance of a thousand suns and the splendor of destruction it would bring. The Italian Futurist poet Filippo T. Marinetti horrified Walter Benjamin when he wrote: “War is beautiful because it enriches a flowering meadow with the fiery orchids of machine guns. War is beautiful because it combines the gunfire, the cannonades, the cease-fire, the scents, and the stench of putrefaction into a symphony.” We do not have to embrace war or fascism to open ourselves to the truth of what Marinetti said, or to the truth that nuclear explosions, as frightful and death dealing as they are, are also, in their own perverse way, beautiful.

The last small government photograph is a 2.2-kiloton balloon burst, detonated at the Nevada Test Side in 1958. The sky is deep blue. Desert mountains line the horizon, snow perhaps dusting the higher peaks. In the middle distance hangs a thin white mushroom cloud (only 2.2 kilotons, considerably less than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima). In the immediate foreground stand two Joshua trees, one upright, the other leaning to the left; and thus they frame, provide a tilted V for, the base of the distant explosion. The upright tree actually, eerily, replicates the shape of the cloud. All in all, an artful photograph. I like to think that some anonymous government photographer was taking more than a perfunctory, more than a documentary, interest in his work. The picture also made me wonder about the photographs Ansel Adams, with his feel for the dramatic interplay of light and dark, might have taken of nuclear test shots. Or the morbid endgame sensuousness that Imogen Cunningham might have coaxed out of the mushroom folds. Or the sinister dream-truths that might have been revealed by a Man Ray negative reversal. Which is to say, such photography wouldn’t merely depict ecological damage or, conversely, serve as a mere exercise in form, but would pose larger questions about the nature of beauty and perception and the depths of ambivalence in the human heart.

Michael Covino is a writer who lives in San Francisco. He is the author of the short-story collection The Off-Season.