The Trinity test and its preparation in 1945 established the circumstances for photography’s use in the service of weapons expansion and warfare in the United States. The Test’s Weapons Physics Division used photography as a way to survey future plans for the Trinity Site in order to plan its construction, document the day-to-day operations, and develop the infrastructure for transporting nuclear material and its attending apparatuses within North America. For the Trinity site, photography was a way of documenting quotidian tasks such as taking inventory of landforms, landmarks, and architecture. Photographs would sometimes mark a procedural milestone, showing smiling faces in front of a completed piece of machinery. The director of the Trinity test, Kenneth Bainbridge, conducted some of the initial surveys for the future test site with a small team of five. He appeared to abandon the scientific class of his post. His photographs seem as if they would fit more seamlessly in a family album rather than in the official documentation for the largest and one of the most significant scientific endeavors of the twentieth century. Driving out to the potential eight sites, he took pictures of the passing fields as the small, four- to five-man team drove along the dirt roads of New Mexico. He captured snapshots of a jeep stuck over a small ridge, and, in another, the men pushing it out of the ridge and in another the accompanying soldier changing his shirt after setting the jeep free; of five men on the team walking along white sand dunes in full business suits; of the homes of families to potentially relocate and of the cattle they would have to buy out if they acquired the land; and perhaps 100 pictures of landscapes, unbroken except for mesas and scraggly bush lines.
Bainbridge’s self-elected objective was to take pictures for professional, surveying purposes, but, at times, the photographs have a more tourist-like quality. This tourist would be visiting country he was unfamiliar with, terrain, climate, landforms, animals, and what little architecture there would be. The tourist took pictures of jocular soldiers, of passing landscapes with the jeep’s window reflecting in the foreground. The tourist’s survey on that region of the United States was unlike that of the nineteenth-century survey photographer Timothy O’Sullivan, an experienced photographer who worked with the Army Corps of Engineers survey team and later the United States Geological Survey. On the Trinity Test field excursion, Bainbridge lacked the professional gaze of a surveyor. Perhaps he did not know what he was looking at (long durations driving along that landscape has that hypnotic effect). The wandering eye and capacity for multiple exposures, funded by the government, may have invited a more surreptitious approach to picture-taking. Nevertheless, for Bainbridge, the meticulous scientific method that he applied to his professional work as well as acute attention to mathematical detail did not extend to the preparatory work on the surveys. However, for the field – and prior to building the architecture, infrastructure, engineering models, and instruments – Bainbridge adopted his own tourist sensibility that resulted from his attraction to the seemingly foreign landscape.
After the structures were built and the nuclear program commenced, Bainbridge did not continue photographing work in an official capacity, at least any that would later reside in the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory archives. The task of photography in the service of the physics program was passed to others. Under the Bainbridge’s directorship, Julian Mack and Berlyn Brixner, the leads of the Trinity team’s Optics Division, organized the setup of fifty motion-picture cameras—cameras developed from chronophotographic rifle prototypes on site—at different locations around the S-site: two groups of cameras north of Zero, two groups west of Zero, one group at 800 yards from Zero, one group at 10,000 yards from Zero, and one group at 25,000 yards from Zero. Each camera in those groups was operated by an explosive detonator, a trigger, and the mirrors rotated using a turbine. All fifty of these cameras produced about 100,000 photographs of the nuclear event within a few minutes, and these ballistics photographs of the detonation event were compiled and translated into graphs to measure the radius, heat, blisters, spikes, and time of ground strike. The archive of these photographs in such a quantity, once translated into useable models, would then be used to further develop the weapon.
The photographic positives of the blast itself were not as helpful when translating the visual evidence back into the math for future ballistic engineering, testing, and deployment. The photographic negatives run through a Moviola projection machine were preferred by the engineers and physicists, because the cameras were too close to Zero and the shock waves caused too much light refraction resulting in a lack of contrast in the positive. The translation from photographic positives to negatives, and then from photograph to mathematical functions to graphs, is necessary because the engineers needed to graph the features of the blast, an emitted-light analysis Mack terms “space-time relationships.” Produced in part by photography, the engineering models would predict and further develop the weapons tested throughout the Atomic Energy Commission’s cold war-era nuclear program. The applications of that program would be seen predominately at Pikini (Bikini) Atoll and the Nevada Test Site, though other international branches would follow.
Culturally, the mushroom cloud emerged as a symbol of United States military and scientific competency and victory after World War II. The image of the United States as a global superpower given its technological and scientific power persisted throughout the cold war via the repetition and reproduction of this symbol. Bruce Conner’s reworked footage was the first major exhibition of such imagery in the artworld: his 1976 work Crossroads, which depicted the detonation of plutonium bombs Able and Baker during the eponymous operation on the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands (July 25, 1946) was shown at a New York City gallery. The first exhibition that centered solely on the ecological and cultural consequences of nuclear testing was in 1987. The Atomic Photographers Guild: First International Exhibition at New York Open Center in New York City, curated by Robert Del Tredici, Harris Fogel, and Carole Gallagher, concentrated specifically on the devastating social and ecological effects in Japan from the bombings, as well as in New Mexico and Nevada from weapons testing. Unlike the scientific photographs used as measurements, the photographs in this exhibition concerned the lived, nuclear condition and introduced the shift from the sublime into a visual idiom of ecological tragedy, and later, resistance against testing and devastation.