Weird Ways of Seeing: Patrick Nagatani’s Nuclear Vision




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 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. It inherited its name from the Trinity test, 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 world. 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 Chicago 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.

(Image available here: https://www.petergoin.com/nuclear-landscapes)

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.

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? Radiation and the military-industrial complex are phenomena that are hard to see head-on, even as they undergird the technology of everyday life. Both Goin and Nagatani use strategies of indirection, but Goin stops at the level of nature. 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. To indirection, Nagatani adds technicity, extremity, distortion, and allusion. In these photographs, nuclear weaponry isn’t a thing you can sense immediately, even in its visible effects on a landscape. Rather, it’s a horror best glimpsed out of the corner of your eyes.

Nuclear Enchantment is stuffed to bursting with space, place, people, and ideas. In Plate #27, “Alamogordo Chamber of Commerce,” Nagatani’s treated the photograph so heavily that it looks like a painting. As a location, the Chamber of Commerce mixes government and business, over which the war plane and missile loom. The figures themselves are evacuated, faces denatured in a nuclear desert. The image holds its breath and waits for the shock wave. 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. 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. 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. The bomb could drop at any moment, or we could be hollowed out by the invisible, lingering effects of radiation poisoning. 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.

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. The uncanny is that which resembles the familiar, but then inverts it, maintaining the surface of resemblance but without its interior substance. 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. Our landscape, our country, our homes: they look the same, but there’s something rotted out at the core.

By packing his photographs full of details and traces, Nagatani captures the moment just before total collapse. His photographs hold together juxtapositions and entanglements that would otherwise repel each other or collapse under their own weight. 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. Yet these symbols occupy an unreal space, slipping in and out of view just like the bomb. 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. Nagatani doesn’t care if we understand the facts and figures of what nuclear weaponry has done and continues to do to New Mexico. He cares if we know how to see it.

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. 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. Power plants are dispersed across the country, but uranium mines cluster in the American Southwest and run up the spine of the Rockies. In light of the richly textured photographs that precede them, these maps feel prosaic, almost dull — concessions to the documentary impulse. Nuclear weaponry becomes an array of points on a representation of a country, artificially bounded and flattened.

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. 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. 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. I tunnel down into the maps, and I see the mines dotting Navajo reservations. 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. The violence of the nuclear age didn’t start in 1945, but rather stretches back to the point of colonization itself.

I speculate on these maps as I spectate them. I imagine Nagatani might appreciate the way I think of these photographs as training material, instructions in the art of seeing interconnection and entanglement. I think once more of the trinitite that opens Nagatani’s series, and how it looks nothing like “actual” trinitite. But “actual,” “real,” and “representative” seem incommensurate with the kinds of sight and understanding we need to survive in a post-nuclear world.

¤

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. His website is jeffreymoro.com.


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