Trevor Paglen is an experimental geographer working at the University of California. He’s reponsible for one of the coolest books on confidential military activities,
I Could Tell You But You Would Have To Be Destroyed By Me
, a collection of the arcane shoulder patches worn by soldiers operating in the classified or “black” units. Since then he has been working on his telephotography project—snapping classified sites and hardware that are far beyond the view of the human eye.
Vice: Talk me through how you can take a photo of something you can’t see.
I have a number of telescopes and other optics that are normally used to take a picture of, say, Jupiter. These objects are many millions of miles away. With this body of work, I’m interested in places on the ground, but which are also inaccessible. Secret military bases and ranges tend to have giant buffer zones around them, so there’s really no way to see them with the unaided eye. I’ll try to find mountains outside these military ranges that have a line-of-sight into the range, climb them with all the gear, and point the telescopes in the direction of the place I want to photograph.
So do you often spend a long time sitting in deserts and mountains, waiting? That sounds pretty dull.
Yes, usually a few days at a time. It’s really, really uncomfortable sitting out in the middle of the desert heat in the dirt lugging tons of gear around. It’s blazing hot during the day and cold at night.
What’s with the blurriness in the pictures?
It turns out that it’s somewhat harder to take a picture of a distant military base or range than it is to photograph, say, Jupiter. The reason is that even though Jupiter is much, much further away, there’s really only about five or six miles of thick atmosphere between us and Jupiter. Space is practically transparent. On the ground, however, I’ll often be shooting through dozens of miles of thick atmosphere, haze, and heat. The blurriness in the images comes from the earth’s atmosphere breaking up the colors, sharpness, and contours of light as it passes though so much thick air. In the images we’re really seeing the physical limits of human vision as much as anything else. That’s why I call the technique “limit-telephotography”—we’re seeing the “limits” of vision.
What is the furthest you have shot from?
About 65 miles. It was a triptych of images depicting San Nicolas Island off the coast of California, an island that the Navy uses to do secret stuff. At that distance, however, light breaks down so much that the images collapse completely into what looks almost like Rothkoesque color fields. Only in one of the three images can you see a distortion on the horizon that represents the island.
How did you develop this technique?
Before I started taking these photos, I was spending a lot of time out in the desert poking around and looking at military ranges and bases. I’d found some of the mountains you could use to see the bases in the distance. Looking through binoculars, I could just see the installations shimmering through the heat and atmospheric turbulence. That image through the binoculars seemed like an allegory for the secret world that those bases were a part of, so I started experimenting with how to capture that vision on film.
Don’t the security guys come and hassle you if you’re standing on the perimeter fence with a huge camera?
The places I shoot are usually way bigger than that. Remember that I’m dozens of miles away, so it would take them an hour or so to reach me. Also, in the desert cars kick up huge dust trails so you can see someone coming from many miles away. On some occasions I’ve been stopped, but I’m not breaking any laws. Military people are usually pretty professional about things. They stay on their side. I stay on mine.
Do you think of your telephotos as art or are they more a science project?
The photos are art through-and-through. There’s really nothing scientific to learn from them because they don’t really show you things so much as they show you the limits of seeing, and by extension, knowing. People want different things out of art. I want art that helps me “see” the contemporary historical moment. I want things that help me develop a visual “vocabulary” of the present, but which do not necessarily speak themselves, and that can be as ambiguous, as strange, and as familiar all at the same time as the world we’re living in.
This was one of those shots that almost didn’t happen. I’d spent all day and all evening photographing these aircraft from the top floor of a hotel in Las Vegas. I was sick of taking pictures and nothing was happening, so I went down to the casino and had a Martini. When I came back up I was dead tired, but noticed that something was going on on the Tarmac below so I grumpily set up my equipment and shot a bunch of photos. I’m glad I did.
Sometimes with these photos, you don’t notice something going on in the image until long after you’ve shot it. It took me a couple of months to realise that there was something unusual going on in this image. Some kind of vehicle in front of or adjacent to the “canyon” hangar on the left.
2007 ELECTRONIC WARFARE
This is a really weird site on top of Halligan Mesa in Central Nevada, just north of the Nellis Range. They have a “threat emitter” up there. The facility is probably also connected somehow to an airstrip called “Base Camp”, where the Air Force, various Special Forces units, and the CIA all do weird things. I once saw a bona-fide “black helicopter” at Base Camp and took a picture of it. I felt like it was too much of a cliché to publish, so I never did even though it was real.
2007 OPEN HANGAR
From time to time, I’ll see that different hangar doors are open at some of the places I visit, and I always try to photograph the open doors. Of course, you can never tell what’s going in inside from the distances involved. This was shot at the Tonopah Test Range, a kind of “grey” base in Nevada where they secretly operated two squadrons of stealth fighters in the 1980s before the plane was made public. The base is still very much open for business, but who knows what goes on there.