This is a monochromatic photograph taken 25 milliseconds after the explosion of ‘The Gadget’, the first ever detonation of a nuclear bomb. Codenamed the Trinity experiment, the bomb was detonated over the New Mexican desert in the early morning. There are seven distinct parts to the photograph. The foreground takes up the bottom third of the photograph and is rendered entirely in black. Above this there is a very thin layer of ground which is illuminated and appears to have a number of small objects, which may be buildings, on it. There is then a layer, which varies slightly in width, of mixed grey and white shades, after which there is a band of grey with a circular mark to the right. There is then the largest expanse of the explosion – the fireball – a semi-circular area of variously shaded grey. This grey is pitted with white marks, some large, some small. The sky is rendered black. Lastly, some text has been added to the image, presumably by the military. This text records the interval between when the bomb exploded and when the photograph was taken and includes a scale which marks a distance of 100 metres.
There is some similarity between monochromatic images of the moon and the greater portion of the fireball. Both appear in various tones of grey and are dotted with circular marks, although there are far fewer such marks on the atomic fireball. In moon photographs these are, of course, craters, in the explosion it is not entirely clear what the white spots are. They are most likely areas of light in the plasma which were too bright be recorded by film emulsion. Unlike the surface of the moon there is a viscous, almost gelatinous quality to the fireball as it rises over the desert floor, the debris of which can be seen roiling at the base of the fireball. With hindsight we can clearly see the nascent formation of the so-called mushroom cloud which we know will boil its way into the dark sky. There is also something ocular about the image, it’s almost as if a great eye is about to flick open and a slumbering murderous beast emerge from the earth.
Sontag notes that photographic images are so ubiquitous that they have become a means by which we experience reality. Given this, it is impossible to ‘experience’ the Trinity photograph without the mind making connections to other images from the atomic age. The most immediate and overwhelming association is made to the appalling images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is an umbilical link between the Trinity photograph and those from Japan. We cannot conceive of either without the other. We cannot consider the Trinity photograph without victims, just as we can’t make sense of the images from Japan without consideration of the explosion.
Yet, for all of its wretched horror, I cannot view the photograph without feeling a sense of awe. There can be little doubt that the first explosion of a nuclear bomb was an extraordinary event. The temperature at the heart of the explosion was 10 000 times that estimated for the surface of our sun; sand in the radius of the blast was transformed into radioactive green glass (later named Trinitite); the heatwave from the blast was felt on skin 32 kilometres away; the shockwave was felt 290 kilometres away; the mushroom cloud reached a height of 8 kilometres; the light emitted from the detonation lit up the mountains surrounding the test site for over two seconds, and was seen 450 kilometres away. Numerous eyewitness accounts describe, in almost romantic terms, the explosion with reverence and wonder – likening it to the rising of the sun, a God destroying a world or the birth of a new age of unimaginable new possibilities, both progressive (the promise of limitless power) and wickedly regressive (as a weapon).
This is the atomic sublime – that combination of terror and wonder that continues to mystify us.