Trevor Paglen’s Secret Pictures

Ask most photographers what inspired them to start taking pictures and expect to hear about an old compact, a small child and “I’ve been shooting ever since.” For Trevor Paglen, whose works have been exhibited at the San Jose Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles County Exhibitions (LACE) and San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts to name just a few, an interest in photography was sparked by something a little more unusual.trevor.jpg

“I remember standing on a mountaintop overlooking Area 51, I think it was, and looking through a pair of binoculars. I could see shimmering heat waves and only a very blurry outline of the base, which was about 30 miles away. That sense of distance, of extreme haze, heat, and those blurry outlines struck me as a perfect metaphor for the kinds of conceptual questions I was interested in,” he said. “I also really liked the references to traditional landscape photography — it was like taking an Ansel Adams, magnifying it a million times, and seeing that those spectacular images of the desert actually contained quite a bit of bizarre and well-hidden human activities.”

Trevor decided to produce a series of landscape photographs of places that were normally kept out of sight — CIA airfields, hidden military bases, secret test sites… — but found there was nothing in traditional photography that would allow him to shoot pictures at distances of up to 30 miles, often the closest he can get to a restricted area and still remain on public land. It took him about four years to find a solution in astrophotography. Trevor puts a camera at the end of the sort of telescopes designed for stargazing and points them through the air at covert sites in the desert.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple. Although Trevor is a geographer by training, which helps him to identify likely locations, just reaching a place to shoot often means a long hike with more equipment than he can comfortably carry. Color-correcting and printing can be a challenge in itself. And haze can quickly turn an image into blur.

“There have been many times where I’ve driven fifteen hours to a site, hiked up a couple thousand feet in the desert, realized that the conditions weren’t going to work, turned around and driven home,” Trevor said. “That can be extremely frustrating.”term.jpg

When the conditions are right though, the result can be fascinating, an odd mixture of voyeurism and political activism. New York Magazine placed Trevor’s work at the furthest conjunction of “highbrow” and “brilliant,” and in addition to plenty of exhibitions, his works have sold too, although only at levels high enough to break even.

“Some people collect them,” Trevor explained. “I sell enough work to pay for the equipment and my costs to do the work, but I don’t really make a living doing this. It’s very expensive work to do, so I’m happy to have gotten to the point where it pays for itself.”

For Trevor, who has also co-authored a book on the CIA’s secret renditions, the point of his photos isn’t to earn money though but to pose questions about the things we can’t usually see. Asked if things hidden away in the desert might not be hidden there for a reason, he replies by quoting Thomas Jefferson: “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance” — which for Trevor means a long walk with a heavy telescope.

Photo of Unmarked 737 at “Gold Coast” Terminal by Trevor Paglen

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