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Trevor Paglen

American

1974, Camp Springs, Maryland

Trevor Paglen artist portriat

Courtesy Trevor Paglen studio

Audio Stories

How to photograph the unseeable

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TREVOR PAGLEN: 

I’ve been very interested in the phenomena of what, in the intelligence and military, is called black sites.  

The black site is a place where the very existence of the place is a secret. And that’s something that I’m very interested in as an artist, because there’s a whole tradition in art of thinking about landscapes, and understanding “what does the world look like?”  

Well what does a landscape look like that isn’t supposed to be there, that— that nobody will acknowledge? So this is a particular— this is a political question, but this is also an aesthetic question, like really, like literally, what does that look like, a place that’s secret?  

In terms of the technique itself, it involves using cameras, lenses, telescopes that are designed for taking pictures of distant planets, or other stars, or far away galaxies even, and applying those to taking pictures of things on the ground.  

Now it turns out that it’s harder to take a picture of— of something on the ground that’s thirty or forty miles away, then it is to take a picture of Jupiter, for example, which is hundreds of millions of miles away.  

The reason of that is that think about if you’re looking up at Jupiter, you’re looking through about five or six miles of thick atmosphere, the atmosphere starts to thin out and turns into space pretty quickly, actually.  

If you’re taking a picture of something on the ground thirty miles away, you know, you’re essentially looking though six times as much air as you are if you’re looking up at the sky, and there is so much heat, and so much haze, and so much turbulence in the atmosphere that the—the—the photons that make up light are literally coming apart from each other. Color is literally coming apart. And consequently it’s much harder to get any detail out of what it is that you’re looking at. 

You come up against the physical limit of vision. That is really what you see in the photograph, is you see vision falling apart.  

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