Are those stars, or radioactive dust, or photochemical treatments? The uncanny is that which resembles the familiar, but then inverts it, maintaining the surface of resemblance but without its interior substance. But on closer inspection, the horizons are different, as are the terrains themselves. The stones are real; their erosion undeniable. Nagatani urges us to keep going, to see how nuclear weaponry structures tourism, urban development, racial and indigenous politics, social and biological reproduction — and yes, our relationship to the natural world. I think of reports published in the past few years on “Navajo neuropathy,” an illness of liver failure, cancer, and kidney disease linked to uranium toxicity that disproportionately affects the indigenous communities who drink from water contaminated by uranium runoff. In the background, a figure with a tripod camera photographs what looks to be a Navajo family in the deep field. By weaponizing uncanniness, Nagatani can capture not just the violence or danger of nuclear weaponry, but also the weird ways it restructures time and place. But this image is a challenge to deductive modes of understanding, given that the deeper we go into the image, the less we find. Our landscape, our country, our homes: they look the same, but there’s something rotted out at the core. 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. 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. The image’s deep layers reveal Nagatani’s compositional process. I imagine Nagatani might appreciate the way I think of these photographs as training material, instructions in the art of seeing interconnection and entanglement. 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. Nuclear Enchantment is stuffed to bursting with space, place, people, and ideas. We have to believe the thing exists. They were relics of a different time, with different concerns, fears, and hopes. In his project on postwar New Mexico, The Nuclear Borderlands, anthropologist Joseph Masco argues that “the nuclear age has witnessed the apotheosis of the uncanny,” characterized by the “dislocation and anxiety” produced by the unknowability of the time and circumstance of nuclear death. What am I looking at? Goin’s photograph attests to the existence of stones worn away in the presence of radiation. His website is jeffreymoro.com. Rather, it’s a horror best glimpsed out of the corner of your eyes. Power plants are dispersed across the country, but uranium mines cluster in the American Southwest and run up the spine of the Rockies. The faux trinitite occupies a middle- and foreground, lacquered over Nagatani’s base photograph of the Trinity memorial site itself, like cel animation. To indirection, Nagatani adds technicity, extremity, distortion, and allusion. The former documents where he took each photograph in the series, and the latter is an attempt to map the nuclear-industrial complex across the nation in 1991. Nuclear weaponry becomes an array of points on a representation of a country, artificially bounded and flattened. Now, I find Nuclear Enchantment all too real. Goin’s photographs do not purport to be works of interpretation; rather, they’re works of witness. Nagatani doesn’t care if we understand the facts and figures of what nuclear weaponry has done and continues to do to New Mexico. 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. It inherited its name from the Trinity test, the first nuclear bomb dropped in the New Mexican desert in the summer of 1945. Many of his symbolic gestures throughout the collection seem obvious at first glance: war planes flying over Japanese tourists, yellowcake cow dung, or a Hopi kachina lording over a missile range all constitute familiar statements on the challenges of globalization, nuclear toxicity, and the neglected indigenous communities who continue to live in these irradiated landscapes. The material realities of nuclear weaponry defy belief: a piece of matter the size of a pinhead can kill thousands, curse the land it drops on, and mutate genetic code so that its effects pass down even in its absence. ¤
Jeffrey Moro is currently seeking his PhD in English at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he researches digital technology’s relationships to questions of speculation, futurity, and ecology. The dark sky’s haze asks us to wonder what precisely it is that we see: How constructed is this image? It’s an uncanny image, one that feels just a tick or two off from “real” enough that it becomes far more unsettling than if it were completely fanciful. I see bunches of Minuteman missiles, each with a destructive capacity three orders of magnitude larger than Hiroshima; I see military bases attached to these bunches; and I see strange geometries constellating the one around the other. 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. For Freud, figures such as the lifelike doll or the reanimated corpse were the apotheosis of “uncanny.” Nagatani understands the ways that nuclear weapons make the earth itself, our home, uncanny, unhomely, hostile, and strange to us. JUNE 2, 2018
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 sky rises green from the sky into a deeper black. Fellow Guild member Peter Goin produced a similar collection of photographs, Nuclear Landscapes, the same year as Nagatani published Nuclear Enchantment. I think once more of the trinitite that opens Nagatani’s series, and how it looks nothing like “actual” trinitite. In that reading, this is a representational or documentary image. For Barthes, these presences aren’t metaphors, but rather absolute material connections between the thing photographed and the photograph itself. This photograph is recursive: an image of an image. His photographs hold together juxtapositions and entanglements that would otherwise repel each other or collapse under their own weight. In light of the richly textured photographs that precede them, these maps feel prosaic, almost dull — concessions to the documentary impulse. He was an inveterate and meticulous model builder, a skill that served him well when staging and layering the photographs in Nuclear Enchantment. After all, photography is light inhered in chemicals on paper. I tunnel down into the maps, and I see the mines dotting Navajo reservations. Nagatani belonged to the Atomic Photographers Guild, a MacArthur-funded documentarian organization dedicated to recording the nuclear age. 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. The bomb becomes just that: “The Bomb,” capitalized, a singular totem. I speculate on these maps as I spectate them. The image holds its breath and waits for the shock wave. (Image available here: https://www.petergoin.com/nuclear-landscapes)
Goin’s photographs conform to perspectival realism. Both Goin and Nagatani use strategies of indirection, but Goin stops at the level of nature. The figures themselves are evacuated, faces denatured in a nuclear desert. As a location, the Chamber of Commerce mixes government and business, over which the war plane and missile loom. Yet these symbols occupy an unreal space, slipping in and out of view just like the bomb. He cares if we know how to see it. The difference between the names is telling. But a weird way of seeing has burrowed into my mind through my encounter with these photographs, training me to see through and into these maps. Documenting a thing proves that it exists, that it’s real, or at least that is was real at some point in time. 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. Nuclear war is on our minds today in a way it hasn’t been since Nagatani published Nuclear Enchantment more than two decades ago. What we see looks plastic, chunked off in smooth angles. 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. They present the landscape in its immediacy, contextualized only by geometric sans serif captions that fade into the shadows of the frame. We’re given clues that don’t add up. The invitation, it would seem, is to read the interior photograph as the past state of the land that surrounds it. 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. 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. By packing his photographs full of details and traces, Nagatani captures the moment just before total collapse. Nagatani was born in Chicago in 1945, 13 days after the United States attacked Hiroshima, to Japanese-American parents interned in camps during World War II. The violence of the nuclear age didn’t start in 1945, but rather stretches back to the point of colonization itself. In contrast to this, in Plate #20, “B–36/Mark 17 H–Bomb Accident,” Nagatani lets the bomb slip in and out of view. In 1919, when Freud originally coined the term “uncanny,” unheimlich in German, he contrasted it with the word heimlich, meaning “homely,” in the sense of the safe or familiar. In the event of global thermonuclear war, I’d almost certainly die in a first wave of strikes. We’re looking at its light. It’s a deeply weird collection, at times fanciful and others hyperreal, always glowing with its own radioactivity. The bomb could drop at any moment, or we could be hollowed out by the invisible, lingering effects of radiation poisoning. Radiation and the military-industrial complex are phenomena that are hard to see head-on, even as they undergird the technology of everyday life. But look closely (put your eyes up against the screen): the family is a cardboard cutout mounted in the distance. Facts and details pile up in inarticulable combinations, producing not a sense of knowing a nuclear subject, but rather entering into an encounter with it on its own nonhuman terms. The collection opens with a startling image:
(Images taken from Nagatani’s site: http://www.patricknagatani.com/pages/nucenchant.html)
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. In the midground, the black-lava-rock obelisk cuts perpendicular to the Oscura Mountains on the horizon. 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. In fact, it’s painted Styrofoam, suspended along diagonal threads of monofilament. At the end of the published book version of Nuclear Enchantment, Nagatani provides two maps: one of New Mexico and one of the continental United States. A hooded figure holds a photograph of a crime scene up against a snowy desert landscape. Nagatani gives the game away in the interior photograph. 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. In Plate #27, “Alamogordo Chamber of Commerce,” Nagatani’s treated the photograph so heavily that it looks like a painting. Nagatani’s photography resists a straightforward documentarian impulse. When I first encountered his work in the late 2000s, I found his photographs entrancing, strangely beautiful, and alien to my world. Rather, the image opens up a speculative space where we as viewers can fill in the imaginative gaps between contradictory pieces of evidence. 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. How then, do we look at a thing like nuclear weaponry, which recedes from view, provides no surface from which to reflect light, and indeed seems to suck up light itself? And these maps are almost 30 years old, which in turn invites me to imagine what these traces are now, how much more destructive our capacity is, which bases have been retired and which never made it to the map in the first place. But “actual,” “real,” and “representative” seem incommensurate with the kinds of sight and understanding we need to survive in a post-nuclear world. I live in Washington, DC, now. 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. In these photographs, nuclear weaponry isn’t a thing you can sense immediately, even in its visible effects on a landscape.