The mark of violence often exceeds its target. Richard Misrach’s photographic series Desert Canto XI: The Playboys (1988–91) shows pages from two issues of Playboy used for target practice at a gun range. Although the shooters were apparently aiming at the cover girls, their bullets also pierced the interior pages, multiplying the violence within. We see bullet holes in an ad for switchblade knives, in a promotional still for Rambo II, and in a photograph of Oliver North, the central figure in the Iran-Contra affair (here nicknamed “The Sexiest Shredder,” after his own role in the destruction of incriminating paper files). Even more disturbing are the pages that present a sunny vision of American life — except for the bullet holes that warp the surface. 1 A shot-up cigarette ad with riders on horses evokes Richard Prince’s famous reproductions of the Marlboro Man, making explicit the cowboy’s role in the violent settlement of the American West.
Photography, ballistics, bodies and objects, genocide. The violence of the Cantos reverberates outward, into landscape.
So already we are caught in a nasty chain of signifiers. Photography, ballistics, bodies and objects, genocide. Now consider that the gun range where Misrach found his Playboys was on the outskirts of the Nevada Test Site, where, over a period of four decades, the United States government conducted more than 900 nuclear tests. The violence of the Cantos reverberates outward, into landscape. The Nevada National Security Site, as it is known today, belongs to a network of military zones and facilities that stretch across the American southwest, 2 reinforcing Misrach’s observation that the Marlboro Man is a less apt symbol of westward expansion than Dr. Frankenstein’s monster. 3
Many artists have explored the intersection of violence and landscape. Some have photographed battlegrounds, 4 and others trace related operations such as military training or weapons production. 5 In this essay, I discuss works by four American photographers who examine landscapes used for the testing, production, storage, and disposal of conventional, chemical, and nuclear weapons. We’ll look at three additional parts of Misrach’s Desert Cantos cycle: Canto V: The War (Bravo 20) (1986–87), which focuses on a Navy bombing range in Nevada; Canto VI: The Pit (1987–89), on three sites authorized for the disposal of livestock that died of mysterious causes; and Canto IX: Project W-47 (The Secret) (1986–92), on the Wendover Air Force Base in Utah, where pilots trained to drop atomic bombs on Japan. 6 We’ll also consider Jan W. Faul’s series We Had to Beat the Russians! (1996–99) 7 and Peter Goin’s book Nuclear Landscapes (1991) and essay “The Nuclear Past in the Landscape Present” (2004), which focus on the Nevada Test Site, the Bikini and Enewetak atoll test sites in the Pacific Ocean, and the plutonium production site at Hanford, Washington. 8 Finally, we’ll look at David T. Hanson’s Minuteman Missile Sites (1984–85), documenting ICBM silos on the High Plains, and his Waste Land (1985–86), a series of 67 multimedia triptychs of contaminated military and industrial sites across the country. 9
Interventions in Landscape
Many acts of violence are too sudden or slow to witness directly, or to photograph in real time. We must therefore observe violence through the traces it leaves on bodies, objects, and environments. It is useful to have an analytical framework for comparing traces of different kinds. Although many military interventions are destructive, we must also attend to constructive operations such as the building of bunkers, railroads, and airfields. On another axis, we can identify material changes in the landscape as either subtractive or additive. We can thus plot four quadrants where these categories overlap. Organizing these traces helps us see them clearly.
Much war photography involves interventions that are both destructive and materially subtractive, such as bomb craters torn out of the earth. Gunnar Schmidt follows this trope back to the First World War and identifies two significant trends. On one hand, images of bomb craters have proliferated with the greater visibility of weapons tests and military maneuvers, televised wars, and acts of terrorism. On the other hand, the field of vision has narrowed. Whereas photos from the First and Second World Wars showed entire crater landscapes, now it is more common to focus on a single crater. 10 A notable exception is Misrach’s Canto V, his series on the Bravo 20 bombing range, where thousands of conventional munitions have left craters so close that they sometimes merge. In contrast, Goin often photographs a single large crater produced by a nuclear test. Destroyed Road and Subsidence Crater, taken at the Nevada Test Site, shows a hole in the access road, and is composed so that the two sides of the road define the vanishing lines of the photo.
There are destructive additions, too, in the form of nuclear waste, chemical pollution, conventional weapons disposal, and other discarded materials. The cratered landscape seen in Canto V is also littered with the rusted remains of exploded and unexploded bombs and with chemical wastes like kerosene and napalm. 11 Hanson’s Waste Land and Goin’s Nuclear Landscapes capture environmental devastation on an even greater scale. Hanson documented 67 of the 400 sites declared by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to be the most polluted in the country, and Goin photographed the Hanford Nuclear Site, which produced plutonium for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki and most of the Cold War nuclear arsenal, and where much of the nation’s highly radioactive waste is still stored. 12
Among interventions that are both constructive and materially additive, we can include facilities such as launching pads, nuclear reactors, munitions factories, and so forth, as well as objects that were meant to be targets for weapons tests, like mock houses and discarded vehicles. Finally, we have interventions that are constructive and subtractive, like ditches dug to bury radioactive waste, as photographed in Nuclear Landscapes, or to load bombs onto airplanes, as in Canto IX.
A surprising number of these sites are embedded in civilian landscapes. Hanson, who hails from Montana, identifies the Minuteman Missile landscape as his home territory, 13 and in Waste Land he documents facilities like the Rocky Flats Plant, where no less than 50,000 plutonium warheads were manufactured in a Denver suburb. Photographs by Goin and Faul reveal that the seismic and radiological effects of nuclear testing extend far beyond the boundaries of the Nevada Test Site. Goin’s Accelerated Erosion shows a valley degraded by the tremors of test explosions, and Faul often registers fallout zones by labeling his photos as “upwind” or “downwind” of radioactive tests. His picture Snow Canyon – Downwind – John Wayne died here goes even further, making a connection between the cancer that killed the Hollywood star in 1979 and the radiation exposure he experienced during the filming of The Conqueror (1956), which was shot on location near the Nevada Test Site shortly after an atomic bomb test.
This spatial expansion corresponds with an even greater temporal one. Photography enables us to move through time. When these pictures were taken, in the 1980s and ’90s, many of the sites still had active military programs. Hanford’s N Reactor was producing plutonium and bombs were still exploding at the Nevada Test Site. 14 Other histories are more distant. Many of the constructive additions are in ruins, like the observation bunkers on the Pacific atolls, which were abandoned after the last tests in 1958. We see only the foundations of bomb towers at the Nevada Test Site and the soldier’s station at Camp Desert Rock. And yet some fragile structures are surprisingly intact, like the fenced area for animal subjects at the Nevada Test Site, shown in Goin’s Electrified Fence Enclosure, or the bench for observers of a local civil defense drill in Faul’s Picnic Table & Bleachers – Charlie shot 4/22/52, Area 6. More permanent traces are inscribed in geological time, including the bomb craters and radioactive soils. Hanson explains that Plutonium-239, with a half-life of 24,000 years, will remain deadly for a quarter million years. Radioactive contamination of the planet may well be the most enduring trace of human civilization. 15
The Crisis of Pictorial Representation
At the most fundamental level, the mark of violence is a void. Schmidt claims that the motif of the bomb crater represents a multiple emptiness. First, the crater is a negative form, a hole in the ground. Second, it marks a temporal absence, as the photograph is taken after the explosion has passed. Third, the crater is ripped from its social context, creating a distance between the image and its caption. Fourth, the crater photograph is devoid of people (at least, this was nearly always the case in WWI, although later photos often show a few stunned witnesses looking down from the edge of the crater). Schmidt argues that the fascination with craters, shared by photographer and viewer alike, is a kind of meta-emptiness. The bomb crater symbolizes both an empty grave and the dearth of visual information in times of war. 16
A constant theme in these works is this crisis of pictorial representation. In Misrach’s Canto V, the immense number and density of craters is made shockingly visible, 17 but the size of any one crater can be perceived only in photos that include a reference object like a bombed-out bus. The crater itself is, in this sense, too abstract. Explosions at the Nevada Test Site present a similar challenge, as many of the aboveground detonations left only the trace of a relatively small crater. For this reason, Goin and Faul tend to focus on the much larger craters made by underground tests, but Goin has acknowledged that as he surveyed the site he was often uncertain whether he was looking at a bomb crater or a natural depression.
The bomb crater symbolizes both an empty grave and the dearth of visual information in times of war.
The photographs inherit that uncertainty. In Goin’s Sedan Crater, we see that the slopes are steep all the way down, but the enormous dimensions of the crater are not evident until we read the accompanying text, which reveals the crater to be 390 meters wide and 194 meters deep. 18 In contrast, Faul’s photo of the same crater, bearing the same title, includes within the frame two observation platforms that we can use as reference points to guess the circumference of the rim. But this photo provides no view of the bottom, so we can’t perceive the depth. In extreme cases, like Goin’s Ground Zero and Faul’s Crater Area – Yucca Flat, Area 9, bomb craters named in the titles or captions are not visually perceptible at all. This is also true for the remains of some constructive interventions, like the military equipment in the Pacific atolls, now seamlessly integrated in the coral reef. Goin’s Tide Pool, the last image in his book, shows orange cables being washed over with sea spray, barely discernable against the brownish ground.
The crisis of pictorial representation is felt most fully in the case of chemical and radioactive contamination. Chemical pollution is often hidden beneath the earth’s surface, in the soil or groundwater, and radiation is imperceptible to human senses except in extreme cases. As Goin says, “I am actually photographing something invisible: radiation.” 19 To further the problem, what is visible in the photograph can be misleading. Goin’s photos of the Pacific atolls show abundant vegetation and clear sea water surrounding highly radioactive Reef Bunkers. 20 Misrach’s Lone Rock, Dawn, from Canto V, is bathed in the warm, soft light of a sun that rises oblivious to the fact that two thirds of the rock has been blown away. Although Misrach has often been accused of aestheticizing his subject, Rebecca Solnit argues that his work opens the observer’s eyes to the deceptive character of beauty or appearance. 21
To follow the trace of violence, then, we have to rely on sources of information outside the photograph. All four artists provide context in titles, captions, accompanying text, and other media. Solnit observes that the meaning of Misrach’s photos depends heavily on their titles, 22 and Max Kozloff has argued that Hanson’s environmental ethics is revealed not through his photos, but through their description. 23 Goin’s Nuclear Landscapes — with one exception — includes not only titles, but also explanatory captions, as well as an autobiographical foreword and a rich historiographical introduction. When Goin presents his work in other contexts, such as in an exhibition space or on his website, he superimposes explanatory cutlines on the photos, as seen here in Nuclear Reactors D and DR. 24 While Faul’s titles are frequently ironic, even sarcastic, Hanson writes texts that he characterizes as “cool” and “bureaucratic.” 25 In Waste Land, every photo is combined with a site description copied verbatim from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Hanson also includes maps that situate the aerial photos in a geographical context, showing just how close to populated areas the contaminated sites are. 26
Nevertheless, Hanson insists that the environmental devastation in his photos is “dramatically evident.” 27 In Tooele Army Depot (North Area), Tooele, Utah, from Waste Land, the evidence lies in the monotonous rows of munitions depots whose rigid alignment indicates the severity of the problem. In Minuteman Missile Sites, we see the repetition of a patterned landscape: the top of the silo, a flattened area around it, a few antennae, an access road, and surrounding fields, ponds, or slopes. The missile bases have a faceless, interchangeable look reminiscent of the “non-places” theorized by Marc Augé. 28 This pattern, seen from above, can be read as a warning sign.
Faul and Goin often include signs and markings within the frame of the photograph. Faul’s Plutonium Valley, Area 11 – NAFR shows three signs that warn of radioactivity with text and pictograms, while Goin’s Contaminated Overflow Drain, taken at the Hanford nuclear site, presents a sign that reads “Radiation Zone.” In his Nuclear Reactors D and DR, we see four yellow posts whose meaning has to be explained in the caption; they mark an area where radioactive waste was buried. 29
Color in these works is sometimes used to misdirect the viewer. For example, Misrach captures desert colors that look magnificent but are actually the result of air pollution, 30 and in Canto VI he photographs animal carcasses in warm colors reminiscent of the flesh of human bodies in baroque paintings. 31 Some of the bomb craters in Canto V, though, contain milky liquids that are neon orange, pink, or red. While Schmidt compares these colors to harmonious color-field painting, 32 I would argue that the red resembles blood, suggesting a wound, and that the unnaturally bright colors insinuate that the ground is poisoned. Meanwhile, Goin alludes to the lethal radiation at Hanford with grayish tones, 33 and the reactors from decommissioned atomic submarines in his Submarine Reactor Disposal Site resemble coffins, placed in a ditch, where their deep black color contrasts with the pale sand.
Those holes in the ground that Schmidt compares to empty graves can be filled with other materials, too. In Misrach’s Canto VI, we see dead and decomposing animals reduced to bare skulls, entrails, hooves, and bones, mixed with debris. Here, landscape photography is linked to the genre of still life and literally becomes nature morte. Some of the carcasses are lying in and around pits, establishing a visual connection between these literal graves and the symbolic graves of the bomb craters at the Nevada Test Site. The atmospheric test Upshot-Knothole Nancy, carried out in 1953, was blamed for the deaths of 4,390 horses, cows, and sheep, 34 and the dumping grounds for the animals are located in an area contaminated by diverse military experiments, including the underground nuclear test Niblick Shoal in 1963. 35
The iconography of the bomb crater is not the only lineage invoked here. These four artists draw on the rich traditions of photojournalism, landscape photography, and scientific imaging. Hanson’s bird’s eye perspective and the dry style of his captions suggest military reconnaissance, subjecting the space to an abstract and controlling rationality. 36 Meanwhile, Misrach’s Bravo 20 and Goin’s series present historical images alongside the artists’ contemporary work. In “The Nuclear Past in the Landscape Present,” Goin publishes ten pairs of then-and-now images. In two cases, historic images of test explosions are paired with new photos of the resulting craters; in other cases, the paired photographs depict the same object in an intact and then a damaged state. In Site of Above-Ground Nuclear Tests, Goin photographed the dried-up Frenchman Lake at the Nevada Test Site from the same elevation that was once used as a viewing platform, known as “News Nob,” where journalists and scientists observed numerous tests over the years. 37 Similarly, Goin captured the bunkers in the Pacific where scientific photographs of the Castle and Redwing nuclear test series were produced, and Faul has taken a picture of News Nob, Area 6 itself.
There is a long history of photographers translating mechanical traces on physical surfaces into optical traces on light-sensitive surfaces. As an early example, consider Timothy O’Sullivan’s famous Desert Sand Hills near Sink of Carson, Nevada (1867), which shows the photographer’s coach in a sand dune, with his footprints leading to the spot where he stood to take the picture. Like bomb craters, these footprints express the occupation of the ground, and like the target structures built at nuclear sites, they are impermanent; they can be blown away at any time. 38 Further, these works draw on the history of scientific ballistic studies. In pre-photographic ballistics, the physical record was the surface itself, perforated by actual shots, an indexical image of the bullet. This is the method used by Benjamin Robins in the 18th century, when he shot musket balls at strips of paper in order to examine their lateral deflection. 39 Twentieth-century ballistic studies include not only photos of the shot piercing the surface, but also photos of the holes in the surface after the event. 40 This is a continuous tradition, from studies of cardboard walls and armor plates shot with artillery munitions 41 to the test of the first true hydrogen bomb, Ivy Mike (1952), which vaporized the island of Elugelab in the Enewetak atoll. 42
Art historian Alois Riegl makes a distinction between intentional and unintentional monuments, i.e. between those monuments that are consciously planned and those that are regarded as such in the light of history. 43 Traces of military activity in geographic space fall in the latter category. Yet these traces are often formalized and, through their restoration, conservation, modification, and designation, converted from unintentional to intentional memorials. Whereas Misrach has advocated for turning the Bravo 20 bombing range into a national park, 44 the Nevada Test Site was actually opened to tourists in the late 1990s, and part of the Hanford Site became a National Monument in 2000. Preservation efforts are sometimes an explicit focus of the artists’ work. Faul photographed the observation platforms at the Storax Sedan test crater, which had been introduced into the National Register of Historic Places in 1994, 45 and Goin’s Nuclear Landscapes opens with an image of the National Historic Landmark at the Trinity site, which memorialized the world’s first nuclear test. Additional examples can be found in Goin’s essay “The Nuclear Past in the Landscape Present,” where he explains that the Doom Town House, a mock house blown off its foundation by a shock wave during a civil defense test in 1955, was partially rebuilt and is now maintained as an historic artifact. 46 Whereas most spreads in that essay show an old photo of an intact building and a new one of the building in ruins, this pattern is reversed for the reconstructed farmhouse where the core of the Trinity bomb was assembled. Goin presents a historic photo, circa 1964, of the farmhouse in a deteriorated state alongside his photo of the restoration.
While these four artists were influenced by older traditions, they were first to cast light on landscapes that were largely unseen. Hanson’s aerial approach protected him from contamination, but it also made visible areas that were inaccessible, due to their vast exclusion zones or their submersion underground. 47 Misrach, Goin, and Faul transcended that distance by actually entering military exclusion zones and, in Goin’s case (Bunker Interior and Cables and Nest), even trespassing into buildings. 48 Goin has compared entering the Nevada Test Site to crossing a border to another country where he felt like a foreigner. 49 The photos register the transgression of established boundaries, exclusion zones, and sealed areas. Misrach observed in an interview that many documents pertaining to Wendover Air Base were still classified, 50 and his images of the interior of the Enola Gay hangar show signs prohibiting entrance to certain rooms. The boundaries that subdivide the interior of the Nevada Test Site, and that separate it from the outside world, are especially prominent in Faul’s work, as seen in images such as Mercury Highway and Guard Station 500, Area 25.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, few people are shown within the frame of these photographs. The artists examine traces of violence, but they exclude witnesses who might read those traces for us. Goin was one of the first outside photographers to negotiate access to the Nevada Test Site, placing his own health at risk. The radiation caused him to work quickly and raised fears about where he should and should not go. 51 Today, the U.S. Department of Energy offers free, popular sightseeing tours of the Nevada National Security Site, but it still prohibits cameras. What we know of these landscapes we know through their representation, through these traces of traces, which reverberate across the American West.