Friday, February 15, 2008

Faraway (So Close)

Trevor Paglen, "Chemical and Biological Weapons Proving Ground, Dugway UT", Distance 42 miles, 10:51 a.m. (Source: Trevor Paglen)

Trevor Paglen's photography is fascinating not only for its content but for its technique. As self-styled "experimental geographer", Paglen's work "deliberately blurs the lines between social science, contemporary art, and a host of even more obscure disciplines in order to construct unfamiliar, yet meticulously researched ways to interpret the world around us." This operation is evident in Paglen's use of limit-telephotography.

Limit-telephotography relies on astronomical equipment to capture subjects that are dozens of miles away. Large telescopes with focal lengths ranging from 1300 to 7000mm thus reveal aspects of the landscape not ordinarily seen with the naked eye. This constraint is quickly transformed into a rhetorical device: Paglen uses limit-telephotography to capture images of military installations that are otherwise inaccessible to the public. The same techniques used to photograph deep-space objects light years away are thus turned inward -- they become the preferred method of documenting military activity in the American landscape.

Paglen's photographs are taken from a variety of distances. A photograph of the barren landscape at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah (above) was taken from 42 miles away. The details are faint and grainy, giving the photograph an eerie Gerhard Richter-like quality. Blotches of vegetation resemble horizontal streaks, as if Paglen were photographing something that was moving quickly across the landscape. The photograph, though taken at a very high magnification, reveals nothing.

Trevor Paglen, "Illuminated Hangars, Tonopah Test Range, NV", Distance 18 miles, 9:08 p.m. (Source: Trevor Paglen)

The same could be said of his photograph of a set of illuminated hangars at Tonopah, Nevada. Although taken from a distance of 18 miles, this photograph reveals very little. Light pours out from two hangars, bathing the tarmac in an immediate and sterile glow. Foregrounded structures only register as mysterious black masses. As with the photograph of the chemical and radiological testing site at Dugway, this photograph also reveals nothing. Yet the absolute mystery that veils these photographs is admittedly tantalizing: you know something is going on there, but you just can't see it.

Trevor Paglen, "Morning Commute (Gold Coast Terminal), Las Vegas, NV", Distance 1 mile, 6:26 a.m. (Source: Trevor Paglen)

The photographs of unmarked passenger jets at the Las Vegas International Airport's Gold Coast Terminal are equally mysterious. These images, captured from a mile away, show the noses of 737 and 727 "Janet" aircraft. Although these aircraft are recognizable (all have white fuselages with a single red stripe along the windows), their purpose has been the topic of frequent internet chatter. Their flightpaths, destinations, and cargoes are unknown. The term "Janet" ("Just Another Non-Existent Terminal") thus alludes to the secrecy surrounding these aircraft, many which are seen flying over Groom Lake and other parts of the now-iconic Area 51.

Trevor Paglen, "Unmarked 737 at Gold Coast Terminal, Las Vegas, NV", Distance 1 mile, 10:44 p.m. (Source: Trevor Paglen)

Paglen's photographs of the Gold Coast Terminal are bathed in shadows and granular barium lighting. People wearing bullet-proof vests and knapsacks are seen entering the aircraft, but we can only see them from behind. Another photograph shows a 737 bathed in darkness. The forward fuselage door is open, and yet the interior is pitch-black.

There is an obvious irony at work here. The closer Paglen gets to his subjects, the more mysterious they become. The photographs thus provide a glimpse of secret activity, and yet the activity remains secret. At first, this may seem to only confirm limit-photography as technique, and nothing mote. Yet this inability to provide any additional meaning is important, as the act of taking these photographs is significant. This is a slight qualification on the concept of apparatus theory: although Paglen's use of technology is a vital part of his method for constructing and depicting subjects, the photographer's physical location is a major contributing factor. Thus Paglen's relentless documentation of distance away from the subject takes on a new significance as it points to a rare combination of scopic voyeurism and territorial trespass.

(For other posts on Paglen, check out Bryan Finoki's articles for Archinect and Subtopia)

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