Site: Snow in July

Tyler Mills

The following works are visual essays. They are erasures. They are stains. They re-print the indentation that the Trinity bomb blast smashed into New Mexico’s soil. If someone else were to write an object label for these works (if they were hanging on a wall in a gallery), this is what the square of text might say:

Site is a four-part series of visual poems/essays/works. Each work reproduces the Trinity Test site in New Mexico—the location of the first atomic blast the world has known—at specific moments in time after the detonation. The works, titled to reflect this, are “0.016 Seconds,” “0.053 seconds,” “2.0 seconds,” and “28 hours.” Part pencil drawings of photographs taken by cameras scientists hoped would capture the blast without being destroyed by the explosion, part gestural water color paintings, part collages of computer punch cards used by the Los Alamos National Laboratory during the height of the atomic age, and part erasures of eyewitness observations of the site shortly after the radioactive burst boiled and cooled, these mixed-media expressions of time, place, and military-driven environmental trauma intend to invite the viewer/reader to think about the self in relation to history, the environment, the body, and ways of experiencing the catastrophic.

Instead of a de-personalized description, I’m trying to put into words what it was like to make these works. And why I’ve made them. Why do I want the viewer to look closely at instead of away from a shape that signals horror? What is at stake if we look away, if we assume we already understand what there is to know?

No one knows fully what there is to know about this subject because the complete story about it has been partially hidden from the beginning. But I invite you to perceive the origins of the horror, even in the limited way we have of understanding it.


I sketched and collaged these pieces at a residency outside of Chicago in the last trimester of a pregnancy. I couldn’t believe I was chosen to attend. There, I was even given my own artist studio. But the trip was hard on me. All the same, I went. I didn’t have the space to make the visual works I had in mind in my apartment in Santa Fe.

One of the other residents, a performance artist, would eat the avocados and apples I shuffled on foot to the grocery store to buy, stuffed in my backpack, and then labeled in the communal fridge. “Oh, these were yours?” she’d ask, the baggie with my name on it in Sharpie sitting on the counter.

Hungry, stretched out, and exhausted, I bent over the studio table and steadied my hand. To draw a shape, I’d break it down in my mind into smaller and smaller shapes. The cloud became a sweeping curve. The dust became ruffles of triangles and smaller triangles. I did not like looking at these details. I felt everything I knew disappearing into geometry.

I created these works while I lived in New Mexico but three and a half years before I would visit the atomic test site.

In these works, I included erasures of eyewitness observations of the site shortly after the radioactive burst boiled and cooled. These eyewitness observations I included came from scientists who knew what they were seeing. Photographers staged the cameras that took the photos these drawings are based off without knowing if the cameras would be destroyed by the explosion. Both the reproductions of the cloud and the utterances about it came from observers with inside knowledge of what this cataclysmic explosion was.

Photographers did not think about the ranchers, community members, and children nearby, who would have no idea what was coming. Who would not understand the earth-shaking sound, the blast of light.

The job of the photographer was to capture the never-before experienced blast. Photographic lenses trained on the site, nothing more. No one involved gave a thought to the indigenous and Hispanic communities living off the land. Outside the frame. Erased from this moment that would change everything. I want these works to invite a kind of looking that acknowledges this violence. The violence of overlooking. Of forgetting. Of erasing.

The following works, which I sketched from photos taken of the atomic cloud in moments of time after the blast, are titled “0.016 Seconds,” “0.053 seconds,” “2.0 seconds,” and “28 hours.” The bubble expanding, expanding, expanding, and then a scar.


When I lived and taught in New Mexico, I met one of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders, whose family got cancer in the months and years following the blast and was left out of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) that offered funds for downwinders of the nuclear tests the US conducted in other parts of the American Southwest. But New Mexicans, impacted by the very first test, the then-secret blast a month before the devastating decimation of two cities in Japan and murder of Japanese citizens, had at that time been ignored.

I thought about the Tularosa Basin Downwinders as I hand-drew the Trinity Test site, where the first atomic blast the world has known exploded in New Mexico, at specific moments in time after the detonation. I think about how their stories have been so often left out of this representation of the event.


When I dragged my paintbrush over the paper, I despaired, thinking that the color and streaks looked amateurish. The brush speckled the page. I thought about a robin’s egg. The stakes felt so high to me, to take on this subject visually. I wanted my intent to be perceived. I forbid any of the artists from entering my studio for studio visits.

Until the final week, when the works were finished.

Before I made these works, I’d had two miscarriages, one which led to an ER visit and an emergency D & C, a procedure which is not protected any longer unilaterally in the US now that the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

When I was making these works, I was also researching hospitals in the Chicago area in case the baby came early. As I mentioned, I’d traveled from New Mexico, where I was living, to make these pieces. No one could talk me out of going. I knew I was fortunate to be able to attend. I finished grading finals in the studio while glue was drying between pieces of paper on the collages. New mothers aren’t often at residencies because children are forbidden, and I didn’t know what the future would bring. I already felt strange, bringing myself and the growing other inside of me, to the residency.


After I made these works, I bled, hoping I’d make it back to New Mexico for the birth. I sat in a metal chair one night under the track lighting of the studio with my cell phone pressed to my ear. I was on hold, waiting for the nurse on call in Santa Fe to advise me about the amount of blood I’d found in my underwear.


I chose pink for this visual work—a wrong pink. I soaked the paper around my drawing of the atomic cloud growing over the New Mexico desert at 0.053 seconds after the detonation with a pink that is only found in certain flower petals. Or in plastic toys. It’s the color of a highlighter you might choose to illuminate words you want to recall later. The punch cards came from the Los Alamos National Laboratory. I’d collected them from a scientist who had sold them on eBay. The perforations marking data let in color.

Photographers protected the cameras that took the photos of the first atomic cloud in a bunker, hoping the equipment would not be destroyed by the explosion. Representations we have now of the cloud caught in time from one nanosecond to the next as it spread do not reflect what a witness could perceive and try, impossibly, to describe.

When I started these works, I wanted the viewer to pay attention, to look at what the human eye could not understand, as the shape of the cloud changed so quickly that the brain would not recognize these individual shapes. Instead, a witness would leave with an impression.

The mushroom, yes, but not the incremental changes. The brain could not register these in time.

During the studio visit at the end of the residency, another performance artist—not the person who ate my food—pointed at my rounding stomach, then the artwork, and said, “Look, you’re drawing yourself!”

I could see what they saw. A rounding swell. Like my own torso. As the days progressed, the fetus grew so much that I had a hard time keeping up with my fellow residents after dinner on evening walks. I lagged behind.

Why had I created this cloud so that it looked like a human body? I wondered later. The bleeding would stop. I would keep the fetus inside my uterus until I went back to New Mexico for her birth.

On July 16, 1945, fallout 250 miles long and 200 miles wide blanketed New Mexico. It looked like snow. The fluffy flakes carpeted cattle and crops. The very next year, the infant mortality rate was 56% higher than the year before.


Two seconds after the detonation, there was darkness, a purple light. In “Site 2.0 Seconds,” I redacted an eyewitness account so that it reads, “the ominous cloud hanging over us / brilliant purple / radioactive glowing / it just seemed to hang / there forever.” 

That cloud would, in a sense, hang there forever. Invisible. But haunting the sky. And touching the people who live there with its wrong energy.

­­I chose punch cards that kept track of “property records” at the Los Alamos National Laboratory when atomic tests were being conducted in Nevada. I wondered what “property” was being accounted for. I wondered about the implications of the word, “property.” The Manhattan Project claimed the land of the Tularosa Basin as its property. But the poison seeped out of it, impossible to contain. Unlike my infant born just over a two-hour drive from the north entrance to the Trinity Blast crater, the infants and children who sickened and died in New Mexico were among the first fatalities of nuclear weapons.


Spectators of the cloud—and this very representation of it—had the privilege of its knowledge. Reproductions of the Trinity cloud are inscribed with this gaze. The gaze of the perceiver who witnesses an act of harm and knowingly keeps those nearby away from this knowledge. In making these works, I wanted the viewer to look closer, not away. To trace this gaze and understand it as a limitation. To contemplate the violence of this kind of looking and its role in our cultural reckoning with this historical event.


Twenty-eight hours, a day later, a photographer sat in a plane and flew over the bomb crater. The final photos of the site are taken from the sky. From the place where the cloud had towered and dispersed. 

What did the pilot and photographer think as they crossed that haunted air? That ghost tower? And looked down at the scarred soil?

Sometimes the mind doesn’t have much space for more than marvel. Horror. Awe. Words can’t always form in the mind as thoughts.

Animals like jackrabbits that happened to be in blast zone suffered and died.

As I sketched, painted, cut, and glued these works, I thought about whose perceptions of the first atomic detonation are not part of the public eye. Not reproducible as photographs. Not caught by camera shutters protected in an embankment.

Who experienced this world-ending destructive force and must be inscribed in it? What does it mean that now our sense of what happened at this site is shaped by imagery that erases the other witnesses, the people other-ed, kept from knowledge?

Children nearby rolled in the fallout and rubbed it on their skin that day as odd fluff drifted over the desert.

“Snow in July!” they yelled as they played in what fell. “Snow in July.”