On July 16, 1945, at 5:30 am, the first atomic bomb in history was detonated at what is now White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The Trinity test was named as such by J. Robert Oppenheimer, the first director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the central figure in Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster biopic Oppenheimer. Getting the science of atomic fission correct was hard work—up to the moment of the test scientists were taking bets on whether or not the explosion would ignite all the oxygen in the atmosphere (it didn’t). Important, also, was the difficult work of capturing the test on film, a feat that had never been done before.
Filming Trinity allowed the scientists to have a record of the test for analysis after the act. So much in an atomic reaction happens quickly, and any instruments that could normally measure blast details in proximity would be destroyed by a successful explosion. That meant relying on distance photography, and developing special high-speed cameras in order to capture in precise detail moments of the blast fractions of a second apart.
Specialized cameras were used to study atomic processes in the laboratory setting, and then more advanced cameras were adapted to capture the test site. These cameras provided important and durable information, but the only color still photograph of the test happened to be captured by the personal camera of a civilian employee of the labs, Jack Aeby.
“[I] aimed the camera at the detonation point, which was roughly 6,000 yards away,” Aeby told the Atomic Heritage Foundation. He had four shots left on a roll of color film when he went down to the test site, and one of those shots ended up being the only color capture of the explosion. “I released the shutter, it closed, I cranked the exposure down to where it was reasonable, at about 1,000th of a second, and fired the other three shots in rapid succession. The middle one, by luck, turned out to be just about the right exposure—the other two were usable but not as clear or in focus.”
That photograph ended up being one of the first images of the Trinity test the Army released, and it was used by the researchers to confirm what they had calculated about the explosion.
“They actually did one of the first yield measurements by measuring the width of the fireball and estimated time of when that was made and they could back calculate something resembling a good estimate of the yield. It turned out to be in agreement with the other estimates they had,” said Aeby.
Beyond Aeby’s camera and his lucky shot, the Manhattan Project records that 52 different cameras were used to capture the detonation. Most of them were cameras used to record motion pictures, so many of the photographs that endure today from the blast are stills taken from film.
“I was just sitting there with the camera running. Everything was operated from the central control station. Turned on. So I didn’t have to do anything at the time but just sit there. The camera started running,” Manhattan project photographer Berlin Brixner told the Los Alamos Historical Society. Brixner had gone with scientist Kenneth Bainbridge to set up the Trinity site and the photography stations needed, and was managing the cameras for the test.
“Of course it was nighttime, I couldn’t see anything. But when the explosion went off, that welding glass seemed to just glow white, intense white like the sun. So it just blinded me, so I looked aside to the left, the Oscuras Mountains were at the left, and they were just lit up like daylight then. So I looked at that for a few seconds, and then I looked back through my welding glass and I saw that the terrific explosion had taken place. Just unbelievably large explosion. My camera was just sitting there, but soon the ball of fire was starting to rise and I thought, gee, I better get busy. So abruptly I raised it and photographed the ball of fire as it went up to the stratosphere. I kept photographing it for the next couple of minutes or so,” Brizner continued.
Many cameras were set up at fixed locations, some as close as 800 yards from the explosion. To ensure that these cameras could work through the blast, they were set up in shelters, angled facing mirrors that were pointed at the blast. It was raining the night of July 15, and the rain did not let up until the early hours of July 16, so Brizner and a technician had to go and clean the lenses from water and dust to ensure the film worked. Most of the cameras worked, creating footage visible today.
Where can I see Trinity photographs?
Several collections of Trinity photographs exist online, with varying degrees of curation. Los Alamos National Laboratory, the great inheritor of the Manhattan Project’s theoretical division, has shared an album on Flickr of test photographs titled “Trinity to Trinity.” This album includes Aeby’s color photograph, pictures of the mushroom cloud at time intervals from 0.006 seconds to 16 seconds, as well as pictures of Gadget (as the explosive device was called) before the test, and the Trinity site afterwards.
Los Alamos National Laboratory is part of the Department of Energy, and the Department of Energy’s Manhattan Project interactive history includes an animated gif made from film of the first 0.11 seconds of the Trinity explosion. The Atomic Archive offers a guided slideshow of Trinity site and test photographs.
The Atomic Heritage Foundation has galleries of Trinity test footage, including shots of the specially modified military tanks used to test the soil after the detonation. One of the more haunting and unusual images of the blast is that captured by the only pinhole camera at the test, used by photographer Julian Mack.
Twice a year, the White Sands Missile Range opens up to the first 5,000 visitors at the site, who can go and walk around the Trinity crater. As part of the display, photographs of the Trinity test are mounted on the chain link fence surrounding the crater. For 2023, the Army expects a higher than usual number of visitors to the site.
Nolan’s film leaves out direct imagery of the people killed by atomic bombs the US dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, though it does feature the audio from a filmed Manhattan Project report of the devastation wrought by the weapons.
The Atomic Archive has galleries of damage at Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and of Nuclear Effects on Humans, the latter of which carries a warning: “These images can be quite graphic, and should be viewed with caution.”
One way to view photographs and understand the attacks on Japan, which are inseparable from the test at Trinity, is through the stories of hibakusha, or atomic bomb survivors. A digital archive project, developed in 2010-2011, allows readers to click over digital maps of the cities, and view stories and images from the people who lived in them at the time of the bombing. Paired with photography from the devastation, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki digital archives offer a deeper perspective on the cities, beyond just targets on the map.