After Trinity: Remnants and Realities of America’s Nuclear Landscape
Early work 1987-88
is a photographic project I began in the spring of 1987. As an artist I feel a need to do more than just create aesthetically pleasing photographs. My hope is to make art that both educates and promotes discussion. Global issues have been part of my consciousness for many years. Nuclear weapons (and their proliferation) became a major concern for me after I read Hiroshima
as a ninth-grader. The inhumanity of this sordid history as written by John Hershey stunned me. Without a doubt the threat of nuclear conflagration and the on-going technological development of such weapons systems are still causing political turmoil worldwide. The processing, refining and storage of the components for these weapons poses serious environmental dangers, while the vigilance required to keep fissionable materials out of the hands of rogue nations makes every citizen anxious. Such contingencies are humanity’s most salient crisis-in-the-making; ironically we spend little time pondering these histories or eventualities in our everyday lives. It’s much easier to psychically anesthetize our selves against any past, present or future nuclear outcomes.
With these ideas in mind I adopted a multi-faceted, anthropological approach for this project. By visually cataloging the symbols and artifacts of the atomic era, the detritus of early nuclear testing, and the active (or decommissioned) weapons installations just beyond public purview, I wanted to show the insidious way these armaments and their prior histories have become a lacuna in our collective national consciousness. I also wanted to consider how the out-of-sight, out-of-mind “hidden-ness” of contemporary nuclear facilities, test ranges and missile silos—which are often shrouded in a geographic void, or quietly embedded in the landscapes we drive by—mirrors the invisibility of any public discourse on these issues.
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The project began inadvertently, as I was planning a trip to Death Valley. While consulting a map of the area, I became intrigued with the large squares of land commandeered by the United States Government for military purposes, such as bombing ranges and weapons depots. My conspiratorial fantasies ran wild about what might lay sequestered behind these tracts of mountainous desert regions, withheld as they were from public view.
Concurrently, while browsing through a small bookstore at Furnace Creek, I discovered Bombs in the Backyard: Atomic Testing and American Politics
by Dina Titus, associate Professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Chronicling our government’s role in nuclear weapon’s testing and the veiled way it reports that information to the American public, Bombs
also gave a concise history of the Nevada Test Site, a 1,350-square-mile piece of real estate—one of the largest off-limits rectangles found on any map of the United States. Thus, through this alchemy of geometry and geography, I embarked upon an exploration of our Government’s 50-year commitment to nuclear weapons.
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I started at the source: Los Alamos, New Mexico, and the Bradbury Science Museum, a compilation of displays dedicated to the history of atomic weaponry, nuclear testing and research. Cruise missiles swung from the solarium ceiling; replicas of Fat Man and Little Boy—the atom bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima respectively—crowded a corner. Everywhere, doom was on display. In town, you can stand on the corner of Oppenheimer Drive and Trinity Blvd, a crossroads as bewitching as the one that bluesman Robert Johnson sang about. Pausing there, I sensed the profound anguish and dread that Doctor Oppenheimer must have felt after seeing the first light of atomic creation in the sands of the Alamogordo desert. Did he, like Robert Johnson, sell his soul to the devil? The sadness never escaped his eyes. However, the city of Los Alamos and its inhabitants still talk proudly of their seminal and continuing role in nuclear weapons development. The national laboratory, under the auspice of the University of California, conducts business as usual, despite a cold war that continues to thaw.
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Next stop: Trinity. The site of the first atomic bomb detonation was a piece of hallowed ground the day of my visit, snowy and silent. A lone obelisk made fittingly of volcanic material, signaled where the 300-foot tower held Fat Man. The dark marker stood solitary and bold against brutish gray clouds and the burnt umber tones of the surrounding southwestern landscape. A gigantic steel casing, also displayed, looked like an out-of-context Richard Serra sculpture. Constructed to house the bomb and reclaim precious plutonium should it fail to detonate, the scientists at the eleventh hour, confident the “gadget” would explode and the experiment succeed, placed it 400 yards from the epicenter to see what the blast result would be: an early “weapons effects test.”
As it turned out, my favorite photograph of Trinity was taken as I was leaving the compound. A tumbleweed rested against the open gates of this somber memorial site, and its fragility suggested a realization: a Pandora’s box was opened wide on July 16, 1945, and closing that box in distant decades would prove problematic. For on that day, at precisely 5:29:45 Mountain War Time, the brightness of the bombs detonation portended a coming future darkness. A new paradigm had arrived: the art of warfare and the fate of humankind would be forever reconfigured.
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April Fool’s Day, 1988: I drove to Las Vegas, to the Department of Energy’s main office. There my identity was verified and a dosimeter attached (to measure background radiation levels I might absorb while on-site). I asked casual questions about millirems, while contemplating the isotope tan I might acquire by roving around Frenchman Flat, site of numerous above ground atomic blasts from the 1950s where our Government conducted “weapons effects tests.” They erected underground parking garages, houses, railroad bridges, fallout shelters and weirdly shaped hemispherical and cube-like buildings. At one point the researchers, with their keen interest in architectural forms, installed a bank vault 1500 yards from ground zero during the “Priscilla” shot to see how money might survive an atomic attack. Humanoid dummies facing the detonation were lined up wearing seersucker suits and cotton blouses to determine how the blast would affect the latest colors and fabrics. Like the Trinity site, the ground-zero locations at the Nevada Test Site were surrounded by a vacuous silence, as if all life and sound in this terra nullius
had been permanently spirited away by the roar of multiplying atoms. I roamed among the ruins of this nuclear necropolis for three hours by myself, as my DOE guide had departed to take her own pictures. That was fine; being alone in such a traumatized landscape was strangely soothing and contemplative.
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In June, I chatted with a friend who works at a local university. She related that she had a colleague, a geologist / anthropologist, who was completing a feasibility study for the Army Corp of Engineers on the demolition of abandoned Nike Missile silos in Angeles National Forest. (Nike Hercules
were nuclear-tipped, surface-to-air missiles deployed, as their name suggests, to render useless any incoming Soviet bombers heading for LA.) Nike missile silos were part of the 1960s strategic defense plan and geographically ringed many major metropolitan areas, protecting the citizens of Boston, Spokane and New York. Sounding of interest, I contacted her friend, got names, and two days later found myself in the middle of a state prison on top of Mt. Gleason run by the Los Angeles Fire Department.
After checking in, I was told that the silos were located on the edge of a ridge; two inmates acted as my assistants and helped carry tripods and strobe gear to the end of the mountain. Once their supervisor came to get them, I was left alone in these cavernous underground chambers—missile magazines—and began to work. It was dark and eerie. There were control rooms in the underground bays with walls two feet thick, along with the crew’s fallout shelter, to be used after they released their missiles. Massive hydraulic lifts, 20 times the size of those found at your local garage, lay dormant, never used to raise their warheads to the surface for launching. Strange figurative graffiti decorated the walls of the steps descending to the magazines—the doodles of young, bored, waiting-for-the-war-to-happen soldiers. Standing atop this silo in its semi-decommissioned state, the view cutting across blue mountain peaks toward LA was indeed pristine. Nevertheless, like all the nuclear landscapes I had visited of late, it was a visual and sensual disconnect to stand there amid such sublime beauty and realize the destructive force of what use to lie beneath my feet.
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Another aspect of the After Trinity
project involved making film stills while viewing a civil defense movie in my living room entitled “Operation Cue.” The storyline involved a housewife observing the effects of an atomic explosion on everyday household items at the Nevada Test Site in 1957. Tract houses and strip motels were blown up; canned goods buried near ground zero before the blast, were unearthed afterwards and consumed by the spectators—to show the innocuous effects of radiation. “Cue” was one of a series of government propaganda films released to the public in the 1950s to assuage fears about nuclear holocaust, and to suggest that survival was a possibility. Many of the film’s surreal images of imploding buildings, all glowy and red, recorded by remote cameras incased in lead, have gone on to become the quintessential iconography of the nuclear era—brutal, graphic, and undeniably colorful palimpsests imprinted beneath our everyday consciousness.
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The final scene occurred on a Sunday. Couch-bound, I sprawled with the LA Times Book Review
. Among its pages, I read of a new book published by the Progressive Foundation of Madison, Wisconsin. Titled Nuclear Heartland
, it was billed as a guide to the 1,000 missile silos in the United States. The book gave detailed locations of Minuteman missile silos in six “fields” throughout Wyoming, Colorado, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Nebraska and Missouri. As it turned out, I had occasion to be in the Rockies the following week. Adding two days onto my trip, I headed for the “N” flight out on the plains near New Raymer, Colorado. (A flight includes ten silos that geographically encircle a command center containing trained SAC missiliers capable of initiating “launch votes.”) This part of Eastern Colorado resembles Kansas: pick-up trucks with gun racks abound in small Willa Cather towns. These prairie people are Americans; they’re proud to have missiles in their backyards, to help keep the peace. I wondered if they realized the Government’s rationale in placing these silos in such remote locales: in the event of nuclear war, fewer people would die due to the low-population density. They’d be the first to go—USSR ICBMs were aimed at these same silos.
It was August, and hot in this land of sky and dust. I found the first silo just west of New Raymer, in the middle of a field, looking like an innocuous electrical-power substation. A sign hanging from the barbed wire topped chain-link fence, which surrounded the compound, contradicted its seemingly benign features: While on this Installation all personnel and the property under their control are subject to search. Use of deadly force authorized.
Determine not to tangle with the security patrols I had been warned about, or have first-hand experience with the “use of deadly force,” I kept a low profile. Later, at a nearby local cafe I had a burnt hamburger, limp fries, and some better ice tea, and charted my plans. With seven hours of sunlight, I intended to photograph all ten silos in the “N” flight. After lunch a quick drive by the command center showed a jeep asleep—the patrols were off-duty for the moment.
To find the silos one has to drive many unimproved rural roads that lead to a desolate, yet beautiful emptiness so characteristic of the prairie. Only small green signs, strategically placed in the landscape, with arrows and an N-2 or N-4 or N-6 painted on their metal surfaces, indicate the silo locations. Great if you know what they are, but strange semiotics to decipher for the uninitiated. After three hours of photography with five silos committed to film, I packed tripod and camera into the car. Just as I started to drive down the road, the patrol passed by—a close encounter barely avoided.
The rest of the day proved uneventful, until I came to silo N-5, just another typical Minuteman III missile with four nuclear warheads on-board. Stationed a mere 300 feet from Colorado State Highway 14, this installation and its proximity to a public road, was sobering. I reflected for a moment. Unbelievably, we’ve allowed our government to convince us of this nuclear necessity. Hidden in plain sight, we drive by these silos unaware, without raising questions. Nevertheless, to stop, get out of your car, and gaze through the fence at a lime green missile hatch containing a warhead with the equivalency of 1200 Hiroshima’s ... gives one pause. Will the war makers and peacekeepers ever lay them aside and conclude that nuclear weapons have never been the means to a peaceful world, just the eager armament of a potential internecine war?
Santa Barbara, California, March 1988