Robert Hirsch

100 Suns and the Nuclear Sublime:
An Interview With Michael Light

From Afterimage Magazine • July / August 2005
By Robert Hirsch

DOG/81 KILOTONS/ENEWETAK ATOLL/1951 by Michael Light, Digital Images © 2003 Michael Light; courtesy Hosfelt Gallery, San Francisco

Michael Light is a San Francisco-based photographer and bookmaker whose work deals with the politics of the environment and America’s cultural relationship to it. Light has exhibited internationally, and his work is in the collections of 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.

Light reworks familiar historical photographic and cultural icons into landscape-driven perspectives by sifting through public photographic archives. His first such book and exhibition, FULL MOON (1999), utilized lunar geological survey imagery made by Apollo astronauts in the 1960s and ‘70s to represent the moon both as a classically sublime desert and an embattled point of first human contact.

His latest archival project, 100 SUNS (2003), focuses on the politics and the impact on the landscape resulting from atmospheric nuclear detonations in Nevada and the Pacific Ocean that were carried out from 1945 to 1962. Light aerially photographs areas of the western United States, pursuing themes of mapping, vertigo, human impact on the land and the sublime. He is beginning a planned decade-long aerial photographic survey of the West tentatively titled Dry Garden: America Beyond the 100th Meridian. Light is represented by Hosfelt Gallery, San Francisco and Frehrking + Wiesehofer Gallery, Cologne. This interview is the result of conversations and emails from early 2004 and through the spring of 2005.

Robert Hirsch: How did your previous project, FULL MOON, generate the impetus for 100 SUNS?

Afterimage Magazine • July / August 2005, Front Cover

Afterimage Magazine • July / August 2005, Back Cover

Mike Light: On the most fundamental level I am a landscape photographer interested in issues of scale and perspective. I spent five years with FULL MOON and its intense, planetary landscape. Where does one go after? The elemental qualities of nuclear fusion and fission appealed to me as a distillation of the planetary sublime. The nuclear landscape is one of power and violence that needed to be described, particularly in how since 1945 it has irrevocably altered the cultural mechanics of landscape and the environment, after humans became architects of the sublime. Previously the sublime was the province of either God or Nature.

RH: How and when did you realize this was your next direction?

ML: Ideas have a way of forming organically. 100 SUNS happened midway through the five years I worked on FULL MOON and is about the American West. The landscape is divided in a bifurcated way—desert and ocean. This evolved from my concerns for the environment and how we treat that environment, as well as my interests with the fundamental building blocks of landscape perception and representation. I work with big subjects and grand issues, and I am fascinated about that point where humans begin to become inconsequential and realize their smallness in relation to the vastness that is out there. In my archival work I also enjoy inserting a certain kind of revisionist politics into big iconic subjects that are owned by the world, where I can tell a story through my particular prism, in a way that hopefully offers a fresh perspective. 100 SUNS allowed me to roll all these things into one project.

RH: 100 SUNS was the result of your process of working?

ML: Sure, all my work is the result of all that preceded it. It’s intriguing to try and pick apart where certain things come from and the order in which they evolve. I don’t think that I would have been able to do 100 SUNS before FULL MOON because it’s a much more difficult and provocative book. It takes confidence and experience to publish a portrait book of the Apocalypse in six editions worldwide. One’s voice must be very clear before taking on a subject like this. Every image in 100 SUNS refers to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

RH: Why didn’t you include actual images from the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

ML: Everything in the book is deliberate. If I included a single image of Hiroshima or Nagasaki-even if it were only an aerial detonation image and not one of immediate human destruction-the book would have had to go down a wholly different path, or really be two books. It was not a door that one opens lightly; one must be prepared to cross the threshold. My book is about American power, not the direct consequences of the power being observed. It is intentionally one step removed. Other books go where 100 SUNS does not; I believe that when working with intimidating subjects it’s best to stay very focused.

RH: Is the book format viable in the digital age?

ML: Yes, absolutely. I use the Internet just as much as anyone else, but one cannot come away with an organized, coherent, hard-hitting object after doing your research. They are two different animals. The organization and filtration of good books - good art - are needed more than ever in an age where every laptop has more information available than a hundred thousand libraries of Alexandria. If anything, the Internet can be seen as one big democratic archive - quite the playpen, but a replacement for the oracular power of the book? Never. This is not to say that what we call a "book" won’t radically expand, however. I imagine hovering holographic spaces under the complete control of the eye…

RH: How has your undergraduate degree in American Studies from Amherst College in 1986 influenced your photography?

ML: Greatly, in that I very much remain an Americanist. Not in the sense of being an apologist for the nation, certainly, but in the sense of doggedly trying to figure out how it works and finding meaning in the search (however trying it may be at the moment!). The synthetic pulling together of disparate strains of thought that characterizes American Studies has also proved invaluable. My time at Amherst has provided my work a more critical and idea-driven flavor. It’s also given me a lot of healthy anger and confidence, perversely, because when I was there it was so thoroughly hostile to photography as an art form or as a tool of cultural production.

RH: You were born in 1963, the same year as the Limited Test Ban Treaty.

ML: Actually I was born the day it was signed [August 5, 1963].

RH: Do you consider that prophetic in terms of a historic turning point in the nuclear arms race of the 1960s?

ML: I don’t, particularly, but my mother might!

Continued on page 2

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