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100 Suns Hardcover – October 21, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Despite all the thousands of caricatures and artistic re-interpretations of the nuclear "mushroom cloud," photographs of the real thing are still intensely frightening and visually fascinating. The "thousand suns" referred to in the Bhagavad Gita, from which J. Robert Oppenheimer quoted when the first atomic bomb was detonated in New Mexico on July 16, 1945, are depicted here in 100 carefully selected photographs of the aboveground nuclear tests conducted by the United States in the Nevada and New Mexico deserts and over the Pacific Ocean. Culled by Light (Full Moon) from formerly classified documents held by the United States National Archives and Los Alamos National Laboratory, the photos, dating from 1942 to 1962, are awe-inspiring. Crisply printed on black glossy stock, each photo is printed full-page recto, with the facing verso page containing only the plate number, the name of the test ("Trinity"; "Mike"; "Wahoo"), the test date and the number of kilotons (or megatons) of energy released. Extensive notes on each photo and test are in the back, along with a bibliography. Many of the photos show only the blast, but some have people. One photograph, in particular ("019. Simon"), does not show an explosion: soldiers huddle in a trench, identifiable only by the blurred shapes of their helmets, with what looks like glowing debris raining upon them. The back caption notes: "In a moment the ground and air shockwaves will toss them like dolls, then fill their mouths with radioactive dust and also make it temporarily impossible to see." Ultimately, that particular test "scattered deadly fallout throughout southwest Utah" and "highly radioactive rain fell in Albany, New York the following day." Aboveground tests ended with the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty. Releasing worldwide with a first printing of 35,000, this book, some of whose colors are impossible to describe, will leave readers changed.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Scientific American

Text-free, portrait-large photographs--many in dramatic full color, mainly crimson and black by land, clouded skies by sea--are the hundred metaphorical suns promised. Rather more than half of them disclose the proverbial mushroom cloud, luminous or vapor-borne. Each one is a prompt, distant shot of an American nuclear weapon explosion, made during the years from 1945 to 1962, until the Limited Test Ban Treaty quelled both public witness and most fallout through burial underground. The meticulous compiler--photographer Michael Light, whose book Full Moon drew wide praise--ordered his portraits here for visual effect. A contextual look discloses much of weapon development amid the politics of unbridled state power. Since 1945, with the first test and the two calamitous attacks on Japanese cities, the explosive energy ranged from Little Feller I, a test of a midget atomic rocket suited for one-man launch, up to H-bomb Mike, shown in five striking views from 1952. Mike, the first large American thermonuclear device, raised the ante as measured in tons of TNT, from a 10-ton truckload to a fanciful TNT-laden boxcar train 2,000 miles long, rattling past at full speed during two nights and one day. Numbers do not convey everything. The image that most compels a viewer is one from 1946 itself, the first postwar year. The U.S. Navy felt the need for a demonstration of the new atomic threat against warships (no H-bombs as yet). The Bikini Atoll test was duly prepared in the summer of 1946. One fast daylight snapshot from the air shows something near human scale. Against the huge foamy tower of seawater thrown upward, a few tiny black splinters are dwarfed. The furious waters reached and ruined them. Are they kayaks? They were in fact among the largest battleships ever sent to sea, Japan's naval pride, anchored empty as targets. H-bomb tests are observed from 50 miles off; their images here are mostly colorful and complex layers of cloud formations out to the horizon. A few plates show witnesses, some of them troops set closer to the fireball than we would so casually plan today. The documentation is admirable. And Michael Light has put his own views briefly but clearly at the end of the book, recognizing that photographs tell only how things look: "When it's all we have, however, it's enough to help understanding. It exists. It happened. It is happening. May no further nuclear detonation photographs be made, ever."

Philip Morrison, emeritus professor of physics at M.I.T., wrote the book review column for this magazine for more than 30 years. He was a member of the Manhattan Project and a witness of the first test.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; FIRST AMERICAN EDITION (stated) edition (October 21, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400041139
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400041138
  • Product Dimensions: 10.8 x 1 x 13.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (40 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #697,274 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Michael Light is a San Francisco-based photographer and bookmaker focused on the environment and how contemporary American culture relates to it. His work is concerned both with the politics of that relationship and the seductions of landscape representation. He has exhibited extensively nationally and internationally, and his work has been collected by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Getty Research Library, The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The New York Public Library, and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, among others.

For the last fifteen years, Light has aerially photographed over settled and unsettled areas of American space, pursuing themes of mapping, vertigo, human impact on the land, and various aspects of geologic time and the sublime. A private pilot, he is currently working on an extended aerial photographic survey of the inter-mountain Western states, and in 2007 won a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in Photography to pursue this project. Radius Books published the first of a planned multi-volume series of this work, Bingham Mine/Garfield Stack, in Fall 2009. The second, LA Day/LA Night, will be released in Spring 2011.

Light is also known for reworking familiar historical photographic and cultural icons with a landscape-driven perspective by sifting through public archives. His first such project, FULL MOON (1999), used lunar geological survey imagery made by the Apollo astronauts to show the moon both as a sublime desert and an embattled point of first human contact. His most recent archival project, 100 SUNS (2003), focused on the politics and landscape meanings of military photographs of U.S. atmospheric nuclear detonations from 1945 to 1962.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

69 of 72 people found the following review helpful By Bob Robesky on November 14, 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is an amazing photograpic document about a strange time in American history.
It is somewhat personal to me as I was one of the 900 Marines 2 miles from the HOOD detonation on July 5th, 1957. I did not know until I read the caption in the book that I was present at both the largest, and first hydrogen, bomb exploded in the US.
I hope to hell we never see any comtemporary photos of atomic explosions. The photos in this book ought to be enough for all time.
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25 of 26 people found the following review helpful By S. T. Pratt on December 23, 2003
Format: Hardcover
I received this as a surprise gift for my birthday this year, as I have a fascination with the history and science of nuclear weapons. If I had known about it, I probably would have purchased it myself.
For those of you that like the feel of a solid book in your hands, "100 Suns" will not disappoint. The 208 pages contained within are high-quality, thick photo pages. Each photo is displayed over the entire page and are of excellent quality. There are no wordy descriptions written across the photos, or at the bottom of the pages. All information is noted in the rear of the book, where there are short descriptions of each bomb test that is documented in this book.
A previous review stated that if you have seen "Trinity & Beyond: The Atomic Bomb Movie" that there is nothing new here. This is true in the respect that most of these tests are covered in that documentary. However, "100 Suns" allows you to examine the photos and reflect upon them in a way that film does not allow. Additionally, the book shows pictures of the people involved in the tests (soldiers and such), which is an aspect that the "Atomic Bomb Movie" does not tap into in depth.
Overall, this is a great piece of photo history that will also fufill a role as an excellent coffee table book.
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Daniel Kirkdorffer on December 16, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Some books stay with you.

They have a way of creeping into your consciousness, with reminders of what you read or saw, etched in your memory, nudged back to the surface by a thought, a comment, or simply because you can't seem to stop thinking about them.

Michael Light's "100 SUNS" is one such book, and compelling to the point I feel it important to write about here.

The book documents two decades of U.S. nuclear testing through 100 unreal, yet so very real, photographs. Half are of the desert land based tests, the others are of tests performed over the ocean. Most are of the mushroom clouds, but many show the military personnel that observed these detonations.

The photographs, simply put, are stunningly beautiful and terrifying all at once. In general they gradually depict increasingly powerful explosions, from the first nuclear test, Trinity, that began mankind's nuclear era, to the megaton monster tests in the Pacific Ocean.

Each photograph is detailed at the back of the book, which while inconvenient, does at least keep the photo pages uncluttered and focused on the images. The images are identified by the test's name and the tonnage. The names of the tests are unremarkable, certainly intentionally given what they identified, yet image after image gets burned into your mind, not soon to be forgotten. A time line of the nuclear arms race helps pull all the visuals together.

These are reminders of terrifying destructive power that used to be a daily reality, and that today, with the concern that nuclear bombs might get into the hands of terrorists, is once again a force of human nature that cannot be neglected.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By "eminentbrain" on January 13, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I appreciate the nature of these images more having read Richard Rhodes' "Making of the Atomic Bomb" many years ago. Without a doubt, what is documented here is the overt potential for total global annihilation by nuclear hellfire, but what is also documented are the direct descendants of one of the most impressive scientific and engineering achievments of all time.
Knowing that these images represent the ability to destroy on a massive scale, one might find it hard to divest themselves of their instinct to be horrified and shun these pictures, but if you can do so, I think you'll find a great collection of some of the most stark, eerie, organic and beautiful images of our recent secret history. The fact that these pictures were taken for documentation purposes, rather than those of art, makes the dichotomy between the beauty and the horror of this book even more apparent.
Well worth the simoleons.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Taylor Fleet on October 30, 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a very handsome volume, with images every bit as beautiful as the subject matter is terrifying. Shown are mushroom clouds from near and far, in black and white and in color, and soldiers hunkered down and bracing themselves against the burst in the distance.
There's the seemingly harmless--and innocently named--Little Feller I (#46), a "mere" 18-ton-TNT-equivalent delicate puff rising from the barren Nevada desert, captured 40 seconds after detonation.
And then consider Bravo, the largest single nuclear explosion ever. At 15 megatons--the equivalent of 15 million tons of TNT--it released in an instant more energy than all the ordnance spent in World Wars I and II combined.
The list of captions in the back of the book provides interesting data about each test and makes a nice tidy summary of our government's Cold War excesses. Light's book includes a chronology of developments in the nuclear era, including year-by-year counts of Soviet and U.S. nuclear weapons stockpiles. It is noteworthy that, during the hottest years of the Cold War, when the U.S. public was being warned of a widening "missile gap" with the Soviet Union, we always had a greater number of warheads, often as many as ten times more.
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