Berlyn Brixner
Credit: Corbis

Before World War II, Berlyn Brixner was working as a photographer for the Soil Conservation Service (now the Natural Resources Conservation Service), and living in Albuquerque. His work – mostly technical and in service of scientific projects – got him a military job at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, just as the Manhattan Project got underway. Brixner was hired to work on high-speed photography technologies and assigned to shoot the Trinity test, the first use of an atomic bomb.

Shooting a nuclear explosion was no easy matter. After being told by the station’s scientists that the bomb would be roughly ten times as bright as the sun, Brixner went out, shot film of the sun with a slit camera – the type used at races for photo finishes – and did some basic math. By the time the bomb detonated, he had cameras running all around the site and one in his hands. "I was just sitting there with the camera running," he told a WWII historian years later. "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 film strip that captured the fiery mushroom bloom over the Oscura Mountains is not generally considered to be artistically important, but it contains some of the most significant celluloid images of the twentieth century. Brixner's images of Trinity showed the astonishing horror of America's ultimate weapon, allowing civilians to see what their government had been experimenting on the backyard during the war. Excited by his work engineering new types of cameras, Brixner would stay on at Los Alamos until his retirement.

Trinity Test Still