Two epic photographic books give human endeavour a new perspective
Given that Michael Light’s most famous photographic works deal with atomic bombs and rockets to the moon, it seems appropriate to ask why he is drawn to themes so epic in scale and dramatic in their implications. ‘Certainly I love high drama,’ he replies, ‘but I think it’s more accurate to say that I’m drawn to the aesthetic of largeness, of all that is beyond ourselves, precisely because we’d be better off if we didn’t go around feeling like we were the biggest and most important things. Artistically, I’m concerned with power and landscape, and how we as humans relate to vastness – to that point at which our ego and sense of efficaciousness crumbles...’
This counterpoint of hubris and humility is a defining feature of Light’s photographic essays Full Moon and 100 Suns, as is an implied but poignant commentary on human vanity and its consequences. His subject matter may be vast – both literally and morally – but he sidesteps polemical exposition, preferring to let his images invite the inevitable questions and discussion. ‘Social commentary is an intrinsic, though essentially non-textual, aspect of my work,’ he says. ‘I don’t consider myself an activist, per se, but I am a committed environmentalist and it informs my work as an artist. In my opinion, serious contemporary artistic production dealing with landscape must deal with politics and violence in some way, whether explicit or implied. Otherwise it’s just fluff, decoration for those wanting false comfort and a delusionally ahistorical and apolitical world.’
Full Moon was published worldwide to mark the 30th anniversary of the first manned moon landing. Drawing on the NASA (the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration) archive of 32,000 negatives and transparencies, Light distilled an extraordinary composite record, one that not only featured many previously unpublished images but also restored an existential resonance to this most improbable journey made by the Apollo programme astronauts. In a lecture given at in Greece, Light described the purpose behind the five-year project: ‘I wanted to reconfigure this event which had been painted in terms of technological triumph, which it certainly was, a nationalistic triumph, which I suppose it was, but really it had been painted in typically egotistical human terms. I was interested in the moon as a place where we come to the edge of our control, where we lose our egotism and enter into the sublime...’
In the book’s closing essay, Light contrasts the Apollo programme’s unprecedented ambition and marshalling of resources with the unexpected consequences of equipping astronauts with cameras. nasa had initially dismissed the idea of its crews taking Hasselblads to the moon, and early spacecraft designs did not even feature windows. Yet beyond its technical, scientific and political importance, the Apollo legacy proved to be as much about the visual, spiritual and symbolic.
Light says: ‘The driving forces were military and, yes, the propaganda value was huge, but getting humans to the moon was a moment of undeniable triumph and true creativity. It was done peacefully, without national territorial claim, and provided essential hope to the species. It also resulted in a major maturation of our view of ourselves, by offering a view of our home from afar. While manned lunar exploration was framed in narcissistic terms, it hammered home the concept of ineradicable limits and responsibilities even as we seemed to be breaking the last of them. My goal, in a nutshell, was to show the moon as a place, as a landscape, as a world that is not about us.’ One image in Full Moon perfectly captures the scale and precariousness of the Apollo venture, evoking something more important than footprints, flags, and Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. Dwarfed by a landscape of disorientating proportions and luminous grey, one small human figure stands in the distance, his suit a featureless white. The only colour in this monotone vista is provided by one thin orange cable stretching back towards the camera.
If the airless clarity of the lunar surface inspired Light’s landscape sensibilities, eerie light of another kind informs his most recent book, 100 Suns. This is in part a ‘portrait book of the bomb’, a record of human ingenuity made monstrous and absurd. It is also a study in extreme ambivalence, with images that are both compelling in their beauty and grotesque in their ramifications. The title echoes the words of Shiva, quoted by Robert J. Oppenheimer after the first atomic test: ‘If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst forth at once in the sky, that would be like the splendour of the Mighty One ... I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds ...’
Whether abstracted or iconic, these bursts of man-made sunshine evoke a powerful response, and, in common with Full Moon, their frozen moments combine the spectacular and the ‘inspectable’: ‘Although my books are highly cinematic narratives, and my prints can be large to the point of immersion, my enduring passion is the still image, precisely because it is “inspectable” in a way that is wholly different from the ebb and flow of experience itself. This is the true intrinsic power of the photograph for me – the ability to stop time and meditate on a moment such that it can expand to proportions and meanings not otherwise perceptible.’
As both books are sourced from publicly accessible archives, a question of authorship is raised. I puzzle over whether to describe Light as a photographer, a historian or an artist who combines curatorial taste with a photographer’s eye.
‘I’m a book-maker first and foremost, whether with found historical imagery or with my own negative-making: the book form allows a kind of distillation and comprehension that I require,’ he tells me. ‘The images themselves were never made in the context of art, nor do I see them as art after passing through my digital process of manipulation. But the experience of the book or show in the mind of the viewer happens as if the images were indeed art. The experience is art ... It’s important to remember that for 30 years in the case of Full Moon, and for almost 60 years in the case of 100 Suns, nobody had done anything with these piles of photographs, owned by everyone and no-one, until I came along and ran them through a certain sensibility and made rather odd text-less artist’s books out of them...’ This text-less approach avoids pre-emptive colouring of the readers’ reactions. The images in 100 Suns are accompanied only by the date, location and size of each explosion, along with their eclectic military codenames: Priscilla, Zucchini, Wahoo, Climax and Checkmate. Extensive factual captions and a chronology of the weapons’ development are to be found at the book’s end.
Full Moon and 100 Suns are also linked by a causal irony. Without the propaganda imperatives of an escalating arms race, it seems unlikely that human beings would have entertained other reasons to set foot on the moon. That the mania of the Cold War and the prospect of mutually assured destruction should result in iconic images of, literally, one world is a historical quirk that Light appreciates. ‘The twentieth century’s two most notable moments are intimately linked, and both are inextricably bound up with violence and warfare. Apollo would not have happened if it were not for the bomb and the distance between the US and the Soviet Union. Delivering nuclear weapons by intercontinental ballistic missiles, wherein the warhead was rocketed into Earth orbit and re-entered the target nation from outer space, was what drove the so-called space race. Somewhere along the way, both nations realised that they could stick animals on top of rockets and get them back alive almost as easily as they could destroy whole cities continents away...’
One incidental detail from the endnotes to 100 Suns seems to summarise Light’s view of human nature. Ted Taylor was a miniaturisation expert involved in many of the early atmospheric experiments. On 5 June 1952, during the test explosion of a fourteen kiloton device in the Nevada desert, he used a parabolic mirror to focus the bomb’s glare and light his cigarette. While amusing, ridiculous even, in its disproportion, Taylor’s cigarette stunt seems entirely in keeping with Michael Light’s larger themes.