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When an Atom Bomb Dawned Over L.A.

The Los Angeles Examiner's caption is haunting for its understatement. “Los Angeles Civic Center buildings by Nevada A Bomb blast, 1955.” The light it captures suddenly seems too much: dangerous and unearthly. Coverage in the Times in the days following the atomic test in neighboring Nevada described the flash as if something had gone wrong with the calendar itself, the very turning of the planet malfunctioning with a stutter. “Los Angeles had two dawns yesterday,” the newspaper wrote—an incredible statement in any context, stranger than science fiction—the first being this monstrous strobe that irradiated the city like an elemental flash bulb.

Without all we know today of the medical, environmental, and even geopolitical effects of nuclear weapons, it would be easy to see this event in near-mythic terms. The hubris of an artificial sun illuminating distant cities in the desert. The planetary glow of a false star, engineered by human beings, flickering from hundreds of miles away, yet starkly visible. The sheer spectacle of it all literally shines with narrative symbolism, implying humankind arising as some new, astronomically powerful actor on the stage of the cosmos, out-glowing the zodiac itself with what the Times simply called “man-made sunlight.”

In retrospect, however, the event has an unsettling naïvete, like a photo of school kids playing with mercury or a home movie of a parent renovating a baby’s bedroom with lead-based paint. That the terrifying and sublime effects of atomic explosions have always lent themselves well to photography takes on an especially strange irony here, in this metropolis of film and sunlight: that a city would so casually use this unnatural luminosity to take a photo of itself for the morning paper, careless of the danger as the seductive allure of these midcentury detonations drew near.