The moon rises to the east over the barracks of the decommissioned air base, and the internal filters of the ARRI Amira camera slot into place one after the other. The resulting shot passes from dusk to day, day to night, and back to dusk, a relentless loop of a process usually hidden between takes.
A digital camera gathers information by translating light into the electrical charge stored by its sensor. This information can be processed after shooting to radically transform the appearance of what has been recorded, such as by applying a LUT (Look Up Table), a set of numbers that change the RGB color values of an image. But such processing can also take place even before the light reaches the sensor, as the neutral density (ND) filters inside the Amira show. An ND filter aims to reduce “the amount of light reaching the sensor, with no other visible effect,” in the words of ARRI’s own promotional materials: to diminish light evenly across the spectrum, leaving no discernible trace in the distortion of expected color. Unlike chemical film, however, which does not register red within the visible spectrum, digital sensors “require a small amount of this ‘far red’ light to render skin tone as healthy and vibrant,” binding this fantasy of neutral vision to social precepts and racial hierarchies outside the camera, of what constitutes the healthy, the vibrant, and the correct.
The problem of how to modulate the light that reaches an eye, film, or sensor is central both to the history of atomic weaponry and testing, and to how the visual record of such tests became some of the most circulated images of the twentieth century. Photographs of bomb viewing parties on the outskirts of Las Vegas show rows of spectators in dark sunglasses staring at the none-too-distant blast with cocktails in hand. Advanced camera technologies developed by the US military sought
not only a spectacularly high frame rate able to freeze the unfolding detonation but also to handle an excess of light so great that it could not be recorded as a legible image. When it is captured photographically, this excess can produce moments of inversion, the disarming flip of tone into its opposite. In Minor White’s 1955 photograph The Black Sun, we see that titular sun over an Oregon barn in winter, as though an impossible eclipse still bathes the harvested crops in cold light. (Of the photo, White writes: “The sun is not fiery after all, but a dead planet. We on earth give it its light.”1) The inversion is the result of overexposure solarization, caused by so much light passing through the lens that the silver-halide crystals of the film are destroyed, leaving that brightest area of the shot with zero density of metallic silver and thereby inverting
its tone. White claimed that The Black Sun was an accident rather than an intended effect, as the cold caused the shutter to remain stuck too long in the open position. Yet this accident and its resulting defamilarization of a stereo- typical American landscape manages to give oblique image to something harder to capture than an atomic blast. Namely, the toxic effects of industrialization and military testing, including infrastructural networks and large scale extraction and manufacturing, which often remain invisible other than in their delayed malign effects on living organisms. In the case of weapons test- ing and war games, this invisibility is further cloaked by the test sites’ default locations on indigenous land and in zones, like Dugway Proving Ground just south of the Wendover Air Base, wrongly considered to be at a “safe” distance from human habitation. In case anyone wishes to get closer, they are blocked by fences, barbed wire, and threats of reprisal or felony trespassing that keep the fatal technologies out of view, glimpsed only when a convoy rolls through town.
Yet fences able to keep humans out are notoriously incapable of keeping in the particulate and liquid drift of fallout, nerve gas, or toxic rain. And the fact that such tests continued largely unimpeded throughout the twentieth century, in spite of strident protests,
is a sign of just how effectively their consequences were excused by the discourse of accident, as if reducible to single and regrettable instances of mismanagement or unforeseen disaster, individual human errors or tricky shifts in the wind. This discourse of contingency and mishap is itself no accident. It serves to cover over the careful planning and decisions involved at every stage of weapons testing and development, the calculation not only of the lethality of the arms deployed but also of who will bear the brunt of its effects and the degree to which it might be publicly tolerated. Ongoing preparations for war hinge not only on the production of willful accidents but also on a battle over visibility. They seek to restrict the images produced to single spectacles with no fallout, as if effects can be produced without leaving a trace.
1. Quoted in Herbert Blau, The Dubious Spectacle: Extremities of Theater, 1976–2000 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002).