Nuclear enchantment


IN 1991, at the edge of the Cold War, photographer Patrick Nagatani published Nuclear Enchantment, a collection of 40 photographs about the continuing effects of nuclear weapons development in the American Southwest.

The photograph’s name is a mouthful: “Trinitite, Ground Zero, Trinity Site, New Mexico, 1988–89 (collaborated in part with Andrée Tracey).” Trinitite is desert sand fused into glass by the force of a nuclear explosion. It inherited its name from the Trinity , the first nuclear bomb dropped in the New Mexican desert in the summer of 1945. Here in Nagatani’s photograph, it rains down from the sky.

But what we see isn’t actual trinitite: it’s too smooth, its edges too even. What we see looks plastic, chunked off in smooth angles. In fact, it’s painted Styrofoam, suspended along diagonal threads of monofilament. The image’s deep layers reveal Nagatani’s compositional process. The faux trinitite occupies a middle- and foreground, lacquered over Nagatani’s base photograph of the Trinity memorial site itself, like cel animation. In the midground, the black-lava-rock obelisk cuts perpendicular to the Oscura Mountains on the horizon. The sky rises green from the sky into a deeper black. But the weirdest part of this photograph is Nagatani himself in the foreground, with umbrella and jury-rigged suit, trying to avoid the toxic rain.

Nagatani died in October 2017, a few months before we learned in January of the Trump administration’s plan to increase the United States’s nuclear arsenal. Nuclear war is on our minds today in a way it hasn’t been since Nagatani published Nuclear Enchantment more than two decades ago. When I first encountered his work in the late 2000s, I found his photographs entrancing, strangely beautiful, and alien to my . They were relics of a different time, with different concerns, fears, and hopes. I live in Washington, DC, now. In the event of global thermonuclear war, I’d almost certainly die in a first wave of strikes. Now, I find Nuclear Enchantment all too real.

Nagatani was born in in 1945, 13 days after the United States attacked Hiroshima, to Japanese-American parents interned in camps during World War II. He trained as a photographer in Los Angeles, cut his teeth building sets for Hollywood, and moved to Albuquerque to teach at the University of New Mexico in 1987. He was an inveterate and meticulous model builder, a skill that served him well when staging and layering the photographs in Nuclear Enchantment. It’s a deeply weird collection, at times fanciful and others hyperreal, always glowing with its own radioactivity. Nagatani belonged to the Atomic Photographers Guild, a MacArthur-funded documentarian organization dedicated to recording the nuclear age. It was on a touring Guild exhibition in Germany in 1990 that Nagatani first exhibited parts of this collection — no surprise that it stuck out alongside the otherwise monochromatic, spare, and reverent work.

Nagatani’s photography resists a straightforward documentarian impulse. Rather, in its hyper-saturated colors, comic compositions, and weird phosphorescence, Nuclear Enchantment captures the unrepresentable strangeness of nuclear weaponry and its material, cultural, and biological legacies. Twenty-seven years after its publication, in a moment of political and ecological crisis, I want to consider these photographs as models for seeing through nuclear weaponry into a lurking violence that undergirds the American project.

One of Nagatani’s strongest challenges to us as viewers is how we understand nuclear weaponry in and of itself — how we pin it down and name it, border, control, and contain it. The bomb becomes just that: “The Bomb,” capitalized, a singular totem. In contrast to this, in Plate #20, “B–36/Mark 17 H–Bomb Accident,” Nagatani lets the bomb slip in and out of view. This photograph is recursive: an image of an image. A hooded figure holds a photograph of a crime scene up against a snowy desert landscape. The invitation, it would seem, is to read the interior photograph as the past state of the land that surrounds it. In that reading, this is a representational or documentary image. But on closer inspection, the horizons are different, as are the terrains themselves. We’re given clues that don’t add up. Nagatani gives the game away in the interior photograph. In the background, a figure with a tripod camera photographs what looks to be a Navajo family in the deep field. But look closely (put your eyes up against the screen): the family is a cardboard cutout mounted in the distance.

In developing Nuclear Enchantment, Nagatani spent months researching military bases, tracking Air Force exercises, and learning as much as he could about the nuclear infrastructure of New Mexico. But this image is a challenge to deductive modes of understanding, given that the deeper we go into the image, the less we find. Rather, the image opens up a speculative space where we as viewers can fill in the imaginative gaps between contradictory pieces of evidence. The bombs slip away, but we’re still left with an unsettling and strange space. 

Nuclear Enchantment has little of the spare reverence we have come to expect from documents of tragedy — or indeed, from the documentary mode more generally. Fellow Guild member Peter Goin produced a similar collection of photographs, Nuclear Landscapes, the same year as Nagatani published Nuclear Enchantment. The difference between the names is telling.

Goin’s photographs conform to perspectival realism. They present the landscape in its immediacy, contextualized only by geometric sans serif captions that fade into the shadows of the frame. Goin’s photographs do not purport to be works of interpretation; rather, they’re works of witness. Contrast with Nagatani’s take on the “nuclear landscape.”

This scene is heavily treated, both by radiation tailings and in the material of the photograph itself. The dark sky’s haze asks us to wonder what precisely it is that we see: How constructed is this image? What am I looking at? Are those stars, or radioactive dust, or photochemical treatments?

The Guild’s published goal is to “make visible all facets of the nuclear age.” There’s an ethical project to visibility within the documentary mode. Documenting a thing proves that it exists, that it’s real, or at least that is was real at some point in time. As viewers, we know the documentary image is virtual or constructed, but nevertheless the photograph has the power to index actually existing things, events, and people. This is what Roland Barthes argues constitutes the fundamental power of photography in Camera Lucida: photographs always bend back to the things photographed in the first place, always attest to the past existences of things. Goin’s photograph attests to the existence of stones worn away in the presence of radiation. The stones are real; their erosion undeniable. For Barthes, these presences aren’t metaphors, but rather absolute material connections between the thing photographed and the photograph itself. After all, photography is light inhered in chemicals on paper. We have to believe the thing exists. We’re looking at its light.