The United States is the only country in the world to sentence juveniles to life in prison. A majority of juveniles sentenced to life serve their time in just five states, California among them. While many breakthroughs are still needed, California has begun to right the wrongs it has committed against the state’s most vulnerable population.
In 2014 and 2015, Governor Jerry Brown signed two bills that give California inmates who were under the age of twenty-three at the time of their crime and were given a “lengthy or life sentence” a chance for a parole hearing after serving fifteen, twenty, or twenty-five years, depending on the length of the original sentence. Parole is not guaranteed, and it is not an option for those sentenced to life without parole, but SB 260 and SB 261, as the bills are known, give youthful offenders hope where none has previously existed. Over 10,000 inmates meet SB 261’s eligibility requirements, meaning that in light of the nature of their crimes, they are not disqualified from receiving a parole hearing.
SB 261 recognizes that, neurobiologically, young adults between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two share more characteristics with teenagers than they do with adults. In terms of judgment and impulsivity, the young brain simply hasn’t had enough time to fully develop.
“If you take a fully mature adult and a friend says, ‘let’s go rob a 7/11,’ an adult is more likely to recognize that if you have guns when you do that, something even worse than the robbery is likely to happen,” said Elizabeth Calvin, senior advocate of the Children’s Rights Division. A juvenile is “less able to think into the future and recognize that A plus B will equal C in all likelihood.”
SB 261 ensures that people who were younger when committing serious crimes have possibilities more closely aligned with juvenile justice concerns, giving them more opportunities to earn their way home if they can demonstrate they are no longer a public danger. More than that, Scott Budnick, founder and president of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, explained that the bill exists to give hope to people who come from hopeless environments. These inmates “think they have no chance of ever regaining their freedom; then all of a sudden a light turns on and they have a chance at parole,” Budnick continued.
According to Calvin, it is impossible to know who a sixteen-year-old person is going to be twenty, thirty, or especially sixty years from now. So to give them a life sentence, this final, irrevocable punishment, “it makes no sense,” she said. At its heart, SB 261 requires the parole board to give great weight to the fact that these people were very young when they committed their crimes. At its essence, this bill requires the board to say, “Let’s see who you are now,” rather than “This is who you’ll be forever.” In no way does SB 261 alleviate responsibility for criminal actions; it simply recognizes that due to where they were developmentally, they had diminished culpability in comparison to fully developed adults, Calvin explained.
In passing SB 260 and later SB 261, California has taken great strides toward improving the criminal justice system. Still, America’s prison system is incomparable to any other penal system in the world, so we must not idle.
Moving forward, the Public Safety and Reform Initiative, which can be found on the November 2016 ballot as Proposition 57, will build on the victory of SB 261. This measure will change the process for how kids under the age of eighteen are tried in the adult system. Currently, California is one of fifteen states that grant prosecutors, rather than judges, the authority to file a child’s case directly into the adult system. Prosecutors must make their decisions within 48 hours of the crime, typically without having considered any school reports, any psychological disabilities the child may have, or what their home life is like—really, without any analytical information whatsoever.
Conversely, if a judge were making the decision—”the single most important decision the state can make in a child’s life,” Calvin called it—the judge could consider all aspects of the case in order to make an informed decision. “It’s not hyperbole to say that when we throw kids into the adult system, we’re giving up on them.” These decisions must be made with the utmost care.
“At its essence, these initiatives are about how we treat children and young adults,” Calvin said, and so far, our treatment should be viewed as failure. These laws are about recognizing that we, as a society, have been neglecting our responsibility to take care of young people. While we cannot lose sight of how monumental our failure has been, now it is time to focus on what needs to happen next, because more can always be done.
The following photographs from photographer Richard Ross’s widely hailed Juvenile in Justiceproject documents men and women in California’s prisons who were sentenced to life in prison for crimes they committed as children.
Kimberly Gutierrez, age 28. “Our victim was a man. Just a careless act. I had a gun because I ran on the streets. I felt safe with a gun. The man didn’t do anything to merit his life being taken. I was angry. . . I want to be a woman and stop acting like an animal. I am sincere about the changes I want to make and not just saying it because it is expected.”
David Kuns, age 54. “Did my crime at 17, was incarcerated at 19. Murder.”
Frank Barker, age 47. “I was 16 when I committed a murder. . . They tried to give me the death penalty so they pushed it over to adult charges. I got 15 to life. I have had two parole hearings. Last time I got seven-year denial for lack of parole plans. . . I have been clean and in programs since—for the last 21 years, I’ve had no write ups.”
Raylene Brooks, age 44. “I was incarcerated since I was 17. I was in CYA [California Youth Authority] until I was 25 and then here on my 25th birthday. . . I came here from South Central LA. I have two life sentences. . . For those who want to improve themselves we have the luxury of all that here. . . not on the streets. These groups are not the normal for me. In South Central LA the norm is you just survive. Improvement is not an option.”
The United States imprisons nearly 2.2 million people; we have the largest incarcerated population in the world. If California were a country, it would have the world’s fourth highest incarceration rate. A study from The Hamilton Project recently noted that in 2010 the United States spent $80 billion at the federal, state, and local levels to keep people incarcerated. In 2015 at the state level alone, California spent $10.7 billion on corrections and rehabilitation.
At any given time, roughly 240,000 people are incarcerated within California’s borders. Around 160,000 of these have been confined in long-term imprisonment. In addition to nearly 6,000 state prisoners housed in Arizona and Mississippi, on proper California soil there are 35 adult and 4 juvenile state prisons; 10 federal prisons; 6 US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers; 18 private detention centers run by the Tennessee-based Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the Florida-based GEO Group; and 124 county jails. Each of California’s fifty-eight counties also runs its own juvenile hall.
These places of imprisonment are scattered throughout the state with a large concentration in the great Central Valley. Many are clustered menacingly along the spine of the San Andreas fault in a region pejoratively called “prison alley.”
This series of photographs illustrates both the scale and the vast strangeness of California’s Prison Industrial Complex. The prisons are photographed at night from a distance so that the lights from the prison illuminate the landscape. The light that controls the prison population stands as an indicator of state control. The visual effect references the images from the test sites of nuclear bombs, an enormous display of technocratic power reflecting a truly destructive invasion into otherwise peaceful pastoral settings.
California Men’s Colony, San Luis Obispo.
Deuel Vocational Facility, Tracy.
Golden State Modified Correctional Facility, McFarland.
Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison, Corcoran.
Wasco State Prison-Reception Center, Wasco.
High Desert State Prison, Susanville.
Folsom State Prison, Sacramento.
Valley State Prison and Central California Women’s Facility, Chowchilla.
Editor’s note: Photographer Noé Montes knows the Imperial Valley of California as few do. His long relationship with the land began in childhood, first taking it in through the car window as his family looked for work in the fields of the vast valley bordering Mexico south of the Salton Sea. In his twenties, Montes crisscrossed the valley when he worked as a farm equipment repair technician.
Though possessed by a desire to photograph the Imperial Valley since he first learned to use a camera, Montes hadn’t acted on that desire until recently. Last year, with a journalism fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation, he began a project to document the valley’s landscapes and people. He continued that work in this photo essay for Boom.
Montes sees the valley’s spare environment as not just aesthetically compelling, but also saturated with meaning—meaning that has changed over time, and that continues to change as California agricultural changes.
“I thought about the pictures I would make here for many, many years,” he says. “I am, of course, seeing the same things that have always been there, but these things are now imbued with much more history and meaning. They speak to me now of systemic, historic, abuse of power.”
The Imperial Valley “is very rich in resources, but the people who live there are almost all very poor,” Montes says. “This needs to change.”
In the summer of 1966, dance pioneer Anna Halprin and her husband, landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, embarked on a series of experimental, experiential, cross-disciplinary workshops in northern California that blurred the boundaries of architecture, choreography, ecology, music, cinematography, and being itself. That summer, and again in 1968 and 1971, these “Experiments in Environment” brought together artists, dancers, musicians, filmmakers, architects, and environmental designers in provocative, pioneering experiences….
These images are selected from Experiments in Environment: The Halprin Workshops, 1966–1971, an exhibition at the California Historical Society, organized by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts and the Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania. The exhibition showcases the Halprins’ creative innovations with archival material—including original photographs, films, drawings, and scores—from workshops staged in the streets of San Francisco, on the slopes of Mount Tamalpais, and on the shores and cliffs of Sea Ranch, a coastal community designed by Lawrence.
Driftwood Village—Community, Sea Ranch, California. Experiments in Environment Workshop, July 6, 1968.
Driftwood City, Sea Ranch, California. Experiments in Environment Workshop, July 4, 1966. Pictured: (left to right) Lawrence Halprin, Anna Halprin, and architect Charles Moore.
Driftwood City, Sea Ranch, California. Experiments in Environment Workshop, July 4, 1966.
Ritual Group Drawing, Sea Ranch, California. Experiments in Environment Workshop, July 8, 1968.
All images courtesy Lawrence Halprin Collection, the Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania.
Throughout every city, dozens, sometimes hundreds, or even thousands of parcels of land of all sizes sit unused and unloved. Some are owned by the city, some by state or local agencies; others are private. From small fragments of lots to sizeable plots, they are neglected resources for reprogramming the city.
The Bowtie Parcel
With creativity, many blank spaces on the map can become more than just voids in the fabric of city life. Take the Bowtie Parcel, an eighteen-acre post-industrial wasteland near downtown Los Angeles. Formerly owned by the Union Pacific Railroad, it sat empty for years. California State Parks bought the lot for $10.7 million in 2003 but kept it closed to the public for a decade because it didn’t have funds to develop a park. Sandwiched between railroad tracks, highways, and the concrete-encased Los Angeles River, and adjacent to a mostly residential neighborhood, the parcel doesn’t attract many visitors on its own.
California State Parks still hopes to one day develop this lonely land into a public park. But while final plans and funding are being firmed up, it has ingeniously partnered with a nearby nonprofit arts organization, Clockshop, to activate the space, bringing more and more people to the abandoned site.
Every few months, commissioned artists take over portions of the Bowtie Parcel, giving Angelenos another reason to visit. Clockshop founder Julia Meltzer estimates that about 3,000 people have come to events at the site since the partnership with California State Parks started. The parcel has several permanent installations—an obelisk-shaped excavation in an asphalt pad on the site, adobe walls made on site and decorated with changing artwork and graffiti, pointedly political park-style signage that analyzes and comments on gentrification along the river. There have also been moonlit literary salons and overnight campouts beside the Los Angeles River for people from the surrounding neighborhoods, many of whom have never camped out before.
LA Open Acres maps each publicly and privately owned vacant lot in Los Angeles.
Sean Woods, LA sector supervisor for state parks, says the site’s weirdly wild qualities and air of abandonment in the heart of the city attract an audience that cares deeply for the place. “People love the Bowtie in this state—a neglected, industrial landscape with the beauty of the Los Angeles River,” he says. “The aesthetic really attracts artists. For them, it’s a blank canvas.”
But it’s not just a site for artists. “This collaboration with Clockshop is artistic,” Woods adds, “but it also touches on the larger issue of raising awareness of this open space by the Los Angeles River and the issues that surround it. We want to rally support for park development. For us, art is a vanguard of revitalization. It brings people to the site in a nontraditional way.”
Programming the Bowtie Parcel has proved a signal success and an inspiration for imagining the future of not just this once forgotten piece of Los Angeles, but other neglected spaces throughout our metropolitan fabric.
Amigos de los Rios
For the nonprofit organization Amigos de los Rios, the blank canvas takes the form of billboard lots within the cities of Azusa, Baldwin Park, El Monte, South El Monte, Whittier, Montebello, and South Gate. In 2012, Amigos de los Rios worked with UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design professor Nicholas de Monchaux and a team of students to identify lots that could be repurposed into green spaces such as bird and butterfly habitat and wetlands.
Their first project transformed a quarter-acre trash dump in El Monte into a public recreation area filled with exercise equipment and plantings. For years, the students of the adjacent Madrid Middle School referred to this lot as “The Bones.” Wedged between the school and an old metal factory, it was home to two billboard stands and 124 tons of garbage, abandoned sofas, television sets, and mattresses.
With funding from California Natural Resources, CALTRANS, and the California Community Foundation, and help from volunteers, including students from the middle school, and the California Conservation Corps and the Los Angeles Conservation Corps, the site was cleaned up. It now regularly hosts PE classes and marching band practice during school days. The school has arranged native-plant gardening sessions onsite.
Vacant lot on Western Avenue. Photograph by Flickr user Joe.
Now Amigos de los Rios has its sights set on around 150 more billboard lots around town. If turned into welcoming green spaces, Loretta Quach, a senior associate at Amigos de los Rios, says these sites could add twenty to fifty more acres of green space to the surrounding neighborhoods.
LA Open Acres
In many parts of our cities, especially in the poorest neighborhoods, valuable plots of land lie trapped behind unsightly wire fences. These lots could be so much more. They could be pocket parks, urban gardens, or landmarks for public art. Rather than sitting derelict, they could change the lives of thousands of people who live nearby
To bring these forgotten pieces of land to light, a nonprofit organization called Community Health Councils developed LA Open Acres—an interactive map that identifies all of the vacant lots, both privately and publicly owned, in Los Angeles—in collaboration with C-Lab (the Columbia University Laboratory for Architectural Broadcasting) and a group called 596 Acres with support from the Goldhirsch Foundation through an LA2050 grant.
The site collects publicly available information on vacant lots garnered from GIS data from city departments, fieldwork by community researchers, satellite imagery, and existing mapping software. It also includes a status update on each piece of property, plus information on its owner. Before LA Open Acres, no public agency or nonprofit had identified all of these fallow pieces of land in the city. And this lack of information was a major hurdle for anyone interested in repurposing a piece of vacant land.
About 90 percent of the land mapped is in private hands, estimates Malcolm Carson, general counsel and policy director for environmental health at Community Health Councils. The remaining 10 percent is owned by the city. Carson says researchers found many reasons for land to remain vacant. “Agencies often inherit these little parcels and there’s no strategic plan or imperative to do any work on them,” he says. “They usually have to concentrate on the day-to-day work of delivering power, transportation, and water to the city.”
Vacant lot on Marmion Way. Photograph by Umberto Brayj, via Flickr.
Some plots are so small, oddly shaped, or so contaminated that it is often more expensive to repurpose them than to leave them fallow. Should a lot meet the minimum size for a park, agencies would have to expend even more resources trying to figure out who should maintain any future park that would take shape on the property.
Vacant private lots often have a similar backstory. “The tax system in California encourages nondevelopment of parcels,” says Carson. Improving a property usually results in an increase in taxes, although he says that turning a lot into an urban agriculture project could merit up to a 90 percent reduction in taxes.
Every bit of land, no matter how odd, can have an impact, according to Carson. “These pieces of land aren’t marketable, but they’re good for us. There aren’t many parcels of land so small that you can’t even put a bench on it,” he says. Even oddball lots can have a more productive life, not just as full-fledged parks, but as pocket community gardens and gathering spaces. The key is to determine what a community needs and how any plot of unloved land can be part of a solution.
A number of scrappy nonprofits are now eagerly scouring LA Open Acres to find land. One of them is Farm LA, a fledgling nonprofit started by Emily Gleicher and Jason Wood, an Elysian Valley couple dedicated to sustainable living.
Gleicher says she feels like Sherlock Holmes, investigating a mystery using the information LA Open Acres provides on each lot, as they hunt for plots of land with owners who might be willing to see their vacant property transformed into a productive urban farm.
Using the interactive map, the couple has been narrowing down their search for unbuildable lots on narrow streets or small plots that stay vacant because no owner wants to pay for necessary street improvements. Gleicher and Wood would like to turn these lots into drought-tolerant agricultural gardens. They are hoping a recently passed California state bill, AB 551, which gives property owners five-year tax deductions in exchange for allowing their land to be used for agricultural purposes, will encourage owners to work with Farm LA. They’ve already pitched the concept to a number of neighborhood councils.
They’re focusing their search in LA’s “food deserts,” communities with few sources for fresh food. “We want to bring those communities affordable access to organic food, and education on solar and water generation, as well as beautify the neighborhood,” says Gleicher. Wood, who also works at a solar company, hopes to install solar and greywater systems on plots.
They’ve got big dreams for these small lots. Gleicher and Wood imagine LA living off the land.
“We have this Armageddon vision,” says Wood, “where LA could have solar panels running water generators that’s going through a drip line feeding an entire plot of land with no maintenance. Los Angeles could convert back into a desert, but that system will continue to provide water that grows food for people. It’s totally within the realm of what’s possible.”
In the meantime, they’re not sitting idle. They’re converting curbsides on their own street in Elysian Valley into drought-tolerant herb and vegetable gardens.
Sometimes an ephemeral change is enough to reimagine these neglected spaces in the city.
The Community Health Councils recently began #FreeLotsLosAngeles, pop-up events at which the nonprofit works with a property owner to remake a vacant lot just for one day. Much as the wildly successful CicLAvia events help city residents imagine what it’s like to live car-free for a day, these pop-up events ignite a community’s imagination for the abandoned spaces in their midst.
Last spring, after three months of workshops with the community and with the help of the city’s Great Streets Initiative, the council turned a derelict lot at the corner of Forty-first Street and Central Avenue from an intimidating space full of graffiti, aluminum sheets, and barbed wire into a kind of wonderland. Wood palettes became platforms filled with children’s blocks, display tops for succulent plantings, and a lending library. A silvery shade sculpture hung above the lot, as a mariachi trio entertained the crowd, a yoga class for newbies stretched their limbs, and children kicked a soccer ball around.
For a day, anyway, this forgotten space became a vibrant part of life in the city.
Members of temporary dance company WXPT perform evereachmore at the Bowtie Parcel beside the Los Angeles River. Courtesy Clockshop and Gina Clyne.
Editor’s note: In her Alien Apostles series, artist Katie Dorame reimagines the Spanish missionaries who came to California in the eighteenth century as 1950s B-movie space aliens. She writes:
Spanish missionaries and soldiers were only human shells with a deeper squishy green glowing motive: their home planet was in desperate need of cowhides, tallow, wine, and the other goods the slave labor of the missions produced. Or maybe the vast knowledge the Indians had previous to the alien invasion needed to be taken and mutated in order to mine a precious resource found deep within the earth. Whatever the space aliens’ motive was, they needed a unified, purified, categorized, renamed, and rebranded flock of “Neophytes.”
They used baptism as a tool. The glowing green holy water was an irrevocable agreement. Once you were baptized you were visibly and supernaturally branded forever. You were renamed. As a “Neophyte” you were no longer allowed to leave the church. The church owned you and your soul. Those who attempted to leave were hunted down by the Spanish soldiers and flogged.
Through Hollywood and history books we’ve learned a romanticized version of the past. The California mission courtyards today are filled with dewy roses and the graveyards are filled with quaint white washed wooden crosses with no reflection of the horror of a measles epidemic to a non-immune populace—spread by holy water.
Biodiversity loss became a major concern among environmentalists in the mid-1980s. Since then, writers and artists have addressed the fate of individual endangered species as well as global scenarios of extinction in novels, poems, nonfiction, documentary films, photographs, paintings, and musical compositions, not to mention hundreds of websites. Most of these works are inspired by a realist impulse. They aim to move readers and spectators through details and data about the animal or (more rarely) the plant species they portray, creating aesthetic specimens for audiences to marvel at and mourn.
Hiroko Yoshimoto’s Biodiversity series of oil and watercolor paintings takes a strikingly different route. The works have none of the realistic detail of museum specimens or close-up shots, but rather resemble modernist abstraction. Bursts of clashing colors and palettes of subtly shaded ones evoke the vibrant fauna and flora of biodiversity hotspots such as rainforests and coral reefs. Varied shapes call up the enormous range of biological forms, from a single cell seen through a microscope and the texture of a sea anemone to the complex shadings of tree foliage and flashes of birds’ wings. The drawings in a naturalist’s notebook explode into cascades of color. Juxtaposed on flat pictorial surfaces without the illusion of depth that is typical of perspectival paintings, all of the organic objects in Yoshimoto’s works, from single cell to flower blossom, call on the spectator to give them equal attention regardless of their taxonomic status.
“The series Biodiversity reflects my ardent wish that life’s diversity would continue to flourish in the face of accelerated destructive forces created by human hand,” Yoshimoto writes on her website. “The seemingly infinite and wondrous diversity of life forms, like the microbes in a drop of water, inspires unique colors, shapes, and lines that then come alive on my canvas.”
Forms and textures that in the twentieth-century avant-gardes of Europe and Latin America called up the estranged environments of modernity—Salvador Dalí’s melting objects, F. T. Marinetti’s explosive battlefields, Wassily Kandinsky’s colorful geometries, Yves Tanguy’s mysterious plains, Wilfredo Lam’s sculptural jungle—metamorphose in Yoshimoto’s more organic imagination into celebrations of nature’s exuberance, and mourning for the parts of it that we are losing.
Biodiversity #25, 2012, 10 1/2 x 9 1/2 in., watercolor on paper. Yoshimoto painted Biodiversity #25 in two versions: oil and watercolor. The lighter and brighter hues of the watercolor version reproduced here playfully evoke the different scales of marine life. Small circular areas surrounded by dots and light shading might be colonies of tiny, plankton-like organisms or island archipelagos on a map. Elongated red shapes might be slugs or sea anemones, but they also recall the soft, fringed objects in some of Salvador Dalí’s surrealist landscapes, such as The Persistence of Memory (1931). Though none of the objects in the painting can be identified unambiguously, their combination evokes the sun-drenched colors washing around a tropical coral reef: schools of fish, colonies of algae, swarms of microorganisms.
Biodiversity #1, 2012, 16 x 16 in., oil on panel, collection of the Museum of Ventura County. Biodiversity#1 conveys a sense of life’s many forms through an exuberant explosion of color. Shapes strewn across the canvas suggest individual cells, single-celled organisms, sea anemones, or flowering plants, pulled together and propelled along by a horizontal color bar that evokes a fallen tree trunk or a rapidly flowing river around which life proliferates in multiple small environments.
Biodiversity #6, 2012, 16 x 16 in., oil on panel. Biodiversity #6 is even more radically decentered than other paintings in the series. Rather than showing recognizable organisms or emphasizing the idea of ecological stability, it shows the building blocks of life in exuberant motion. Cells, drops, stalks, and leaves whirl about in a dance that recalls Wassily Kandinsky’s geometric configurations, but moving in dynamic, unpredictable reconfigurations.
Biodiversity #10, 2012, 9 1/2 x 19 3/4 in., watercolor on paper. Biodiversity #10 plays on the conventions of the naturalist’s sketchbook. Painted on two sides of a ring-bound notebook, the watercolor painting takes up and transforms the parallel lines of the metal rings into parts of organic shapes—the ridged stalk of a vegetable, flower petals, segments of a sinuous worm or tuber. Writing technology morphs organically into the forms of nature.
Biodiversity #22, 2013, 30 x 60 in., oil on panel diptych, collection of the Santa Paula Art Museum. Biodiversity #22 can be understood as a riff on the Japanese artist Hokusai’s famous woodblock print The Great Wave Off Kanagawa (ca. 1830), as well as the bright colors and bold dynamics of contemporary manga. If the round window at the center suggests a vanishing point that should logically organize the perspectival lines, the streams and flows of color that surround it defy any depth of perspective. Instead, they evoke flows of water, slides of mud, the push of growing roots, the speed of birds’ wings speeding past. From these dynamic, chaotic flows and clashes of ecology and biology, the still center emerges as a moment of genesis in which land and ocean separate from the sky, and organic forms begin to arise.
Biodiversity #33/6, 2013, 24 x 24 in., oil on panel, collection of Community Memorial Hospital, Ventura. Biodiversity #33/6 is the sixth and last of a series called The Future of Life, which forms part of the Biodiversity collection. The darkest and least varied of this series in its shapes and colors, it suggests that species extinction might bring about a future return to a more elemental array of environments and life forms: rock, water, and perhaps lichens and mosses.
Biodiversity #68, 2015, 11 x 14 in., monotype on BFK paper. This delicately colored painting resonates with the landscapes in Yves Tanguy’s surrealistic paintings, which are populated by strange objects and figures. A landscape of dried-up shore, desert, and mountains here seems inscribed with the traces of past life—shapes that suggest skeletal remains, tracks, and scat—but possibly also new small organisms and vegetation.
In the cool of an autumn desert night, the photographer Jamey Stillings and I roll out of Las Vegas into the dark Mojave Desert. With the glitz of the Strip in our rearview, we follow Interstate 15 south across dry desert lakes and wide alluvial fans, through miles of scrub and sand. The road is lonely, just a few long-haul truckers and crapped-out gamblers limping home to L.A. It’s a quiet time for humans, but out there beyond the asphalt there’s action in the desert. Owls and coyotes are hunting. Bats are darting after moths. Cacti and creosote open their pores to drink in the air’s moisture. Now and then a sign marks a lonely outpost: Sloan, Jean, Primm, once-hopeful townsites that never matured into towns. About five miles past Primm, on the California side of the border, we turn onto a road leading into the faint outline of the Clark Mountains. Our headlights catch a sign: Ivanpah Solar Project.
Ivanpah is the largest concentrated solar power (CSP) installation in the world. It’s also one of the most controversial. The $2.2 billion project, which came online in January 2014, is capable of producing 392 megawatts, enough electricity to power 140,000 homes—or all of Pasadena—during peak demand. It’s one of a handful of new mega-plants—including the Topaz solar farm in San Luis Obispo County, the Desert Sunlight plant southeast of Joshua Tree National Park, and the Genesis Solar Energy Project in eastern Riverside County—that have turned California into the first state to generate more than 5 percent of its electricity from utility-scale solar. But Ivanpah has come under fire from conservationists concerned about its bird-frying capabilities, and from green-energy skeptics who accuse Ivanpah’s backers of under-delivering on what was promised.
It’s so dark that I can’t make out where we are. Before I realize it we’re among the heliostats, the 173,500 pairs of mirrors that reflect the sun onto Ivanpah’s three power towers. Each tower is 459 feet tall, four-fifths the height of the Washington Monument. The mirrors stand upright at night in what their keepers call “sleep position,” so that when you drive among them in the pre-dawn gloaming it’s tough to make them out, what with the hall-of-mirrors effect and all. Dark reflecting dark reflecting dark.
“It’s like an immense art installation,” I say to Jamey.
Photograph by Jamey Stillings.
Jamey’s been documenting the creation of Ivanpah for years, so these mirror-made mirages are nothing new to him. But coming upon them with fresh eyes, I can’t help but think of the monoliths of Easter Island, and the light-and-sensory artwork of James Turrell. I can’t wait to see what happens when the sun comes up.
We pass through security and find our way to NRG’s control room, a spacious chamber with computer consoles, dozens of flat-screen monitors, and about ten engineers. At 5:45 a.m., the day crew takes over from the night staff, which has been doing maintenance and prep.
Dawn arrives. Out in the desert, nocturnal owls, rats, mice, and bats retreat to their burrows. They want nothing of the day’s blasting heat. The heliostats, controlled by computers, slowly rotate into position. The first faint light shines on the dark band of the power towers.
At 8:02 a.m., the first of Ivanpah’s three units comes online. It starts small, generating six megawatts. Then nine. Then eighteen. At 8:14, an engineer calls from across the room. “We’re synced!”
Solar power shoots down the line. In San Francisco, customers of PG&E check their email and brew their coffee with Ivanpah energy. In Los Angeles, Southern California Edison brightens traffic lights and gives air conditioners their hum with power from the sun.
For Ivanpah, this counts as a good day: a clear sky with two power towers humming. (The third was briefly offline for maintenance.) Many days, the shift operators aren’t so lucky. Ivanpah was expected to produce more than one million megawatt hours per year, but in its first eighteen months the plant recorded less than half that output. Power plants, regardless of fuel type, aren’t turnkey systems. They require a break-in period during which they run at reduced capacity as engineers work out the bugs. At Ivanpah, that break-in period coincided with an unusual stretch of cloudy days, further reducing its output. The plant’s ramp-up accelerated in early 2015—producing more than double the power of a year earlier—but that didn’t stop critics from pouncing. “High-Tech Solar Projects Fail to Deliver,” the Wall Street Journal declared, presenting Ivanpah as Exhibit A.
That typified the plant’s first year, during which Ivanpah took a pounding in the media. In 2014, the Associated Press moved a story that claimed the plant was “scorching” as many as twenty-eight thousand birds annually—a total that would have required a full-time shovel crew to remove the constant rain of carrion. The biologist who came up with that number later downplayed it as a “back-of-the envelope” estimate, but the damage was done.
Then there was the erosion of confidence in concentrated solar power itself. Between Ivanpah’s groundbreaking in 2010 and its start-up in 2014, the price of photovoltaic (PV) solar panels dropped by more than half. That encouraged thousands of homeowners to join the distributed power revolution, which lets them use rooftop PV panels to power their homes and feed green energy into the grid. Then in 2015, Congress decided to end many of solar power’s federal grants, loan guarantees, and tax breaks. Green energy now provides about 24 percent of California’s needs, and the state’s renewable energy portfolio standard requires that to reach 33 percent by 2020. But right now, utility-scale PV farms and rooftop solar look like better economic bets than CSPs such as Ivanpah. Things change quickly in this space. In 2014 the U.S. Department of Energy saw Ivanpah and similar plants ushering in a “CSP renaissance in America.” By late 2015, it was uncertain whether Ivanpah’s power towers would be among the first of their kind in America—or the last.
The Mojave is a deceptive place. The driest and smallest of North America’s four deserts—it could fit inside West Virginia—it encompasses an extreme range of topographies and temperatures. The gentle, snow-capped peak of Mount Charleston rises to nearly twelve thousand feet just west of Las Vegas. It’s as much a part of the Mojave as Death Valley, the lowest (282 feet below sea level) and hottest place in the United States. In outline, the Mojave is lumpy and misshapen, like a deerskin tossed over California’s meeting point with Nevada and Arizona.
The Mojave’s defining quality is the difficulty of sustaining life within it. Anyone who’s road tripped from Los Angeles to Las Vegas knows this landscape as the journey’s major crossing, a sandy sea that requires preparation, supplies, and good luck to reach the other side. “The Mojave is a big desert and a frightening one,” John Steinbeck once wrote. “It’s as though nature tested a man for endurance and constancy to prove whether he was good enough to get to California.” 1
Photograph by Jamey Stillings.
The animals and plants that survive here are finely adapted to do so. The jackrabbit’s paddle ears are lined with shallow blood vessels, which allow the air to cool its blood. Kangaroo rats seal their burrows to capture the precious moisture released when they breathe. Owls and vultures obtain water from the blood of their prey. The desert tortoise, which often digs its burrows under the shade and camouflage of creosote bushes, survives the harshest seasons of the Mojave by estivating: it gorges on cacti, grasses, and wildflowers during spring, then disappears into the cool darkness of its underground home and waits out the heat of summer.
Native Americans have lived in parts of the Mojave for at least ten thousand years, but the human presence has been sparse throughout most of the area’s human history. Until recently, our need for water limited human habitation to areas where it pooled and ran. The Mojave Indians congregated mostly along the spine of the Colorado River. The nomadic Chemehuevi people, whose traditional lands include the Ivanpah Valley, are known as “those who play with fish.” Human impacts were minimal until the arrival of miners and ranchers in the mid- to late 1800s. The Clark Mountains attracted swarms of grubstakers seeking silver, borax, copper, lead, tungsten, and fluorite. In the 1880s, the mining town of Ivanpah popped up about where the solar complex stands today. The town did a brisk trade: saloons, a butcher shop, hay yards, hotels, and a weekly newspaper. Around 1900, the minerals ran out, and so did the people. The town was abandoned and the desert reclaimed the space.
Just as the seemingly empty and forbidding Mojave actually pulses with life, a desert that can appear bereft of industry in truth supports—and sometimes suffers—quite a lot of it. Though the town of Ivanpah never returned, the mining industry still survives here. Just over the shoulder of Clark Mountain sits the open-pit Colosseum Mine, a gold strike that operated from the early 1980s until 1993. A few miles south of Ivanpah is one of America’s largest rare-earth element mines, which produce the metals used in smartphones, high-efficiency lightbulbs, and photovoltaic cells. Mining is no longer the major industry here, however. Today the area’s economic engine is power production.
Photograph by Jamey Stillings.
Just over the border in Primm is the Bighorn Generating Station, a 598-megawatt natural-gas power plant completed in 2004. Next to it is the Silver State North Solar Project, a 50-megawatt photovoltaic solar farm. When it opened in 2012, Silver State North became the first power-producing solar project on federal land. It’s expected to be followed in the next few years by Silver State South, a 250-megawatt sister project, and by the 300-megawatt Stateline Solar Farm Project, a PV farm tucked between I-15 and the Ivanpah heliostats. In a little more than a decade, the Ivanpah Valley has become one of the most concentrated centers of power production in the American West.
That could be a good thing or a bad thing. It depends on your perspective. In the United States we produce most of our energy—82 percent—by burning oil, coal, and natural gas. With every megawatt produced from those sources, more carbon dioxide escapes into the atmosphere, stoking global warming. Nuclear power is extremely difficult to finance, permit, and build new plants for. Only solar, wind, and geothermal have the potential to replace big chunks of our appetite for burning carbon.
But no energy source is perfect. Ramping up renewables requires real estate. Wind power only works in places with a consistent blow. Solar power needs acreage. You can’t stack mirrors or PV panels on top of one another. Some of that space exists on rooftops. But rooftop solar has its limitations. If every house and commercial building in America harvested energy, they’d meet only 60 percent of the nation’s electrical demand. We most likely need more conservation, rooftop PV, better efficiencies, and utility-scale wind and solar.
On the day Ivanpah opened, solar power accounted for only 0.4 percent of America’s electricity budget. “There is an enormous gap between what needs to get done and what is actually happening on the ground,” said John Woolard, then CEO of the firm that designed Ivanpah, BrightSource Energy, during the plant’s construction. “I don’t think people really have digested how far behind we are from a policy perspective and how bad the consequences are. On a global basis we have got to put one gigawatt of zero-carbon power online every single day between now and 2040 just to stabilize CO2 emissions.”
That means lots of land. Ivanpah’s heliostats range over roughly five-and-a-half square miles (thirty-five hundred acres) of publicly owned, federally managed desert landscape. That’s four times the size of New York City’s Central Park. The Silver State North PV farm covers about one square mile. Stateline will shade another two and a half square miles.
There’s no way around it. Those are significant chunks of prime Mojave wildlife habitat. And therein lies a dilemma for environmentalists. Back in 2009, local conservation groups raised the alarm about losing five and ahalf square miles of high-quality tortoise habitat to Ivanpah’s footprint. The desert tortoise, Gopherus agassizii, is a long-lived and emblematic Mojave Desert species. It’s been listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act since 1980. In some areas, the desert tortoise population has decreased by as much as 90 percent in the past thirty years.2
And the Ivanpah Valley, by all accounts, is excellent desert tortoise habitat.
That forced a number of environmental advocates, who usually champion solar, to take a critical look at Ivanpah. Solar power “should go on rooftops or in appropriate places, not the pristine desert,” April Sall, director of the Wildlands Conservancy, told Bloomberg Businessweek in 2012. “We need to tackle warming, but not forget there are other things at stake.”3
Local chapters of the Sierra Club found themselves divided on the issue. Some favored Ivanpah for its carbon-free energy; others thought the wildlife costs were too high. After the power plant’s partners agreed to significant tortoise mitigation measures—including buying seven thousand acres of private land to set aside as protected habitat, and keeping a permanent biology staff on site at Ivanpah—the national Sierra Club gave the project its blessing.
At midday, Jamey and I drive into the heliostat field with Len Cigainero, NRG operations manager. We stop at the boundary between the inner and outer rings of mirrors that bounce sunlight onto the boiler of Tower 2. “The inner ring is cleared and graded,” Cigainero explains. “Beyond that it’s left in as natural a state as possible.” Jamey and I wander amid the concentric circles. Each heliostat contains two garage-door-size mirrors. “There’s nothing that special about them,” Cigainero tells me. “They’re mirrors just like you have in your bathroom.” Except much, much bigger.
Photograph by Jamey Stillings.
As the day’s heat reaches its peak, Cigainero leads Jamey and me into a crude elevator that hoists us 376 feet—about thirty-seven stories—up Tower 2. It’s an awesome sight, standing at the rail, looking out at the mirror field: 120,000 brilliant white cards, all pointed in our direction. I imagine it’s something like Jimi Hendrix saw at Woodstock. Above us, the 800-degree heat generated by the focused solar energy of sixty thousand heliostats is creating superheated steam that cranks a power-producing turbine. All I feel is the warm day and a light breeze. The mirrors are so precisely focused on the boiler that nothing outside their flux zone feels the heat. But within that zone, birds and insects get scorched. If you watch the sky for a while, you’ll see little flares now and then, a visual record of birds and bugs flying too close to the flux.
Wildlife advocates raised early concerns about the effect of Ivanpah’s solar flux field on passing birds. Solar flux is a measure of the light energy in a given area. Ivanpah’s solar flux field encompasses the airspace between the mirrors and the tower boilers. The heliostats don’t create superheated air. Air absorbs very little light energy. Any object placed in the solar flux field, though, will absorb light energy and convert it to thermal energy. It’s the reason you can breathe the air in a car that’s been sitting in the hot sun, but can’t touch the steering wheel. Therein lies the risk to birds. If they fly through the flux field, they can singe their feathers and even catch fire.
It’s an enormous issue, for both Ivanpah and the future of concentrated solar power. Concern over bird mortality has stunted the growth of wind power, and singed wings could do the same to CSP. To ground truth the matter, the plant’s operators hired a team of biologists to record bird sightings and bird deaths for one full year. During my visit, I watched biologists use bird dogs to search the tower and heliostat areas, finding and recording avian carcasses. Meanwhile, engineers such as Cigainero are trying new solutions, including sound deterrents (sudden loud noises) and a scent derived from grapes that’s obnoxious to birds (smells like grape juice). From October 2013 to October 2014, biologists estimated that 1,492 birds were killed by the power tower and heliostats, through heat flux and collisions. A further 2,012 birds were killed by causes other than the solar power plant, and may represent something close to the area’s natural background avian mortality—birds killed by predation and disease. That’s nowhere near the alarming 22,000 number. But it’s still significant.
Photograph by Jamey Stillings.
Ultimately, Ivanpah’s bird issue comes down to a question of relative harm. The number of birds lost to solar flux pales in comparison to those killed in the United States by windows (an estimated 97 million) and domestic cats (110 million). But that comparison only gets us so far. It’s more useful to measure concentrated solar plants such as Ivanpah against other forms of power generation in a watt-by-watt comparison. Benjamin Sovacool, a Vermont Law School professor and energy policy analyst, has done just that. Sovacool looked at a wide range of data, from bird collisions with nuclear cooling towers, to wind-turbine mortality, to the effects of mercury poisoning and acid rain. The estimates were astonishing. Fossil fuel power plants (coal, oil, natural gas) were responsible, directly and indirectly, for 9.4 bird deaths per gigawatt hour (GWh) of power produced. Nuclear facilities were responsible for 0.6 avian fatalities per GWh. Wind turbines, which have become notorious for their bird damage, turned out in fact to be the most bird friendly of the compared power sources. Sovacool estimated that the blades and towers were responsible for 0.3 avian mortalities per GWh.4
Sovacool didn’t include concentrated solar power in his calculations. The technology was too new and the data simply didn’t exist. But if we use some crude calculations based on an early, small sample size, Ivanpah’s avian mortality lands somewhere in the wind turbine and nuclear power range. Ivanpah is expected to produce somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000 GWh of power in a year. If all bird deaths are counted, that means the plant would be responsible for 0.6 avian fatalities per GWh; if only solar flux losses are counted, the figure comes down to 0.1.
Concern for bird fatalities at concentrated solar power plants seems to be a classic example of what we might call the fallacy of visible harm. We see a bird with singed wings and are moved, rightly, to call for more protection for these imperiled creatures. But what we don’t see are the millions of birds killed by the indirect forces—habitat loss, acid rain, mercury poisoning, climate change—perpetuated by our continued addiction to fossil fuels. The comparison isn’t even close: it’s a full order of magnitude. Coal-fired and gas-fired power plants kill more than ten times as many birds as wind and solar facilities combined. The difference is, those birds are dying hundreds of miles from the causes of their deaths.
As the sun makes its first move toward the horizon, we drive over to Ivanpah’s biological center, a modest collection of shipping-container offices and fenced tortoise habitats. This is Ivanpah’s desert tortoise biological center, a place they playfully call Desert Tortoise Head Start.
At Ivanpah, the desert tortoise acts as an umbrella species. The protocols taken to safeguard the reptiles and their habitat benefit a multitude of other species in the ecological web. NRG’s permit from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management allows them just nine desert tortoise “takings”—a euphemism for death—over Ivanpah’s planned thirty-year lifespan. They’ve already had one. “A biologist ran over a tortoise when doing a tortoise check,” Cigainero told me earlier that morning. “The tortoises look for shade, and this one found it under the wheel of his parked truck.” Ever since then, everybody on site does a vehicle perimeter check before starting up. It’s not just direct hazards that Ivanpah workers have to watch out for. There are indirect dangers, too. “We’re very careful about trash,” Cigainero told me. Desert tortoises have a coterie of predators: ravens, kit foxes, coyotes, red-tailed hawks, golden eagles, badgers, and burrowing owls. A spilled Coke or a misplaced Carl’s Jr. bag might be enough to draw these predators—especially ravens—to the site. And then their sharp eyes might spot a tasty tortoise.
At the biological station, I meet up with Max Havelka, a biologist who oversees the juvenile tortoise pens. The heat of the day has come up, and he’s decked out in full desert work wear: a wide-brimmed straw hat, extra-dark sunglasses, and a slathering of sunscreen. He tells me about the tortoise relocation operation.
“This turned out to be better tortoise habitat than anyone imagined,” he says. In the fall of 2010, before Bechtel broke ground on construction, a team of biologists scoured the Ivanpah site. Fall is typically an active time for tortoises, who emerge from their long summer burrowing to graze in the cooler autumn temperatures. The biologists gathered 173 adult and juvenile tortoises and relocated them to temporary holding pens in a 433-acre preserve set aside for rare plants and wildlife. “We started with sixteen tortoise pens, and ended up with more than a hundred,” Havelka tells me.
Photograph by Jamey Stillings.
Tortoises have a slow and precarious reproductive cycle. They can take up to twenty years to reach sexual maturity, and females lay eggs only when environmental conditions are optimal. Most hatchlings don’t survive. Researchers estimate that up to 98 percent of juvenile tortoises are killed by predators in their first years of life. That makes what happened after the tortoise-gather all the more curious and remarkable. Female tortoises in Ivanpah’s temporary holding pens began laying eggs left and right. Maybe it was coincidental. Maybe it was a response to stress. Maybe the females looked around at the plentiful forage, water, and predator protection, and thought, optimal conditions! Havelka and other biologists don’t know for sure. What they do know is that by the spring of 2011 they had fifty-three new juveniles on their hands.
After fitting the adult tortoises with tiny transponders, Havelka and his colleagues released them back into the Ivanpah Valley, outside the heliostat fields. The transponders allow NRG’s staff biologists to locate the reptiles and check on their health twice a year. To release the juveniles, though, would be to lose 98 percent of the next generation of a federally threatened species. So Havelka and the Desert Tortoise Head Start crew continue to nurture them behind protective fencing.
“We’ll keep them here until their carapaces”—their upper shells—”reach twelve centimeters in length,” Havelka explains. That’s about long as a Pepsi can is tall, and takes about five years. “At that point they’re able to fend for themselves.”
Photograph by Jamey Stillings.
As we stroll through the Head Start center, it’s tough to spot any tortoises. And yet we’re surrounded by dozens of them. “There’s one,” Havelka says. A four-inch juvenile crawls glacially under the shade of a creosote bush. Desert tortoises live up to 95 percent of their lives underground, and when they do emerge they exhibit no darting movements, as these would alert predators to their presence. Rule of survival: you don’t eat what you can’t see.
Photograph by Jamey Stillings.
Like a lot of conservationists, Havelka is aware of the tough trade-offs involved in a project such as Ivanpah. He sees the gains and losses every day. The Mojave, he says, “is amazing. It’s like a desert version of an old-growth forest.” It’s an apt description. The Mojave’s creosote bushes can thrive for centuries. They’re drought hardy and so oily that herbivores don’t touch them. King Clone, a Mojave Desert creosote bush ring, is believed to be one of the oldest living organisms on Earth. UC Riverside botanist Frank Vasek, who discovered the bush in the late 1970s, estimates the plant’s age at around 11,700 years.5
Desert tortoises in the wild can survive for fifty years or more. Their survival into the next century may depend on whether we can ramp up our renewable energy output—because they too are imperiled by climate change. Female tortoises lay fewer eggs during drought years, and soil temperatures affect the sex of embryos. Temperatures above 31.5 degrees C (88.7 degrees F) favor the development of females, so an increasing number of heat waves produced by climate change could leave the population here with a reproductive ratio problem. In other words, doing nothing is as risky to the long-term health of the desert tortoise as are the disturbances imposed by projects such as Ivanpah.
Late in the afternoon, we climb into a helicopter and rise thousands of feet above the desert floor. As the horizon pulls the sun closer, the Robinson R44 offers us yet another perspective on the Mojave. From sixty-five hundred feet up we can see over and beyond Clark Mountain and the Castle Range, the two mountain bands that define and drain into the Ivanpah Valley. The light’s low angle raises the contrast on the land. A multitude of dry creeks, washes, deer paths, jeep trails, rail lines, and dirt roads crosshatch and serpentine over the terrain.
At 5:11 p.m., all three Ivanpah power blocks glow an eerie white. They’re lit up like tall candles on a dining room table. Tiny movements ripple through the mirrors as the computer controlling the heliostats milks every last watt from the sinking sun.
Twenty minutes later, the shadow of Clark Mountain reaches out across the valley floor, nearly touching the outer ring of Unit 3’s heliostats. The darkness moves at a hiker’s pace, slow but steady. All three power blocks blaze until finally, at 5:56 p.m., Unit 1 and Unit 3 begin to fade.
The end of the solar day arrives quickly. Within two minutes the power block on Unit 3 is dark. Unit 2 still shines, but Unit 1 is fading fast. One minute later, Unit 1 is dark. By 6:03 p.m., all three tower boilers are black. Ivanpah is off the grid. One by one the heliostats move into sleep mode, standing vertically, reflecting darkness.
Meanwhile, in the desert, the nocturnal creatures start to emerge. As the intense heat of the day dissipates, they peek out of burrows, foxholes, and caves. Bats flutter into the evening sky. Tortoises crawl out of their holes to forage. The Mojave Desert stirs to life.
As we take one last swoop over the darkening valley, it strikes me that the Mojave has found, in the desert tortoise, its perfectly emblematic species: one that captures all the slow vigor, fragility, reticence, deception, indomitability, and strange beauty of the desert. Like the desert itself, its wonders and charms aren’t apparent upon first glance. But take some time to learn, understand, and appreciate. The same might be said of the Ivanpah project. It’s compelling and strange and not easily comprehended. But it may represent one of our best shots at getting right with the tortoise, the valley, the Mojave, the continent, and the planet. As the light fades, it seems a step in the right direction.
1. John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley (New York: Viking, 1962): 209.
2. Source: Defenders of Wildlife.
3. Quoted in Ken Wells, “Where Tortoises and Solar Power Don’t Mix,” Bloomberg Businessweek, October 10, 2012.
4. Benjamin K. Sovacool, “The Avian and Wildlife Costs of Fossil Fuels and Nuclear Power,” Journal of Environmental Sciences 9, no. 4 (December 2012): 255–78.
5. Frank C. Vasek, “Creosote Bush: Long-Lived Clones in the Mojave Desert,” American Journal of Botany 67, no. 2 (February 1980): 246–55.
Aerial photo calibration targets are curious land-based two-dimensional optical artifacts used for the development of aerial photography and aircraft. They were made mostly in the 1950s and 1960s, though some apparently later than that, and some are still in use, though their history is obscure.
Most of them follow the same general form established by the Air Force and NASA (and prior to 1958, its precursor agency, NACA): a concrete or asphalt pad constructed flat on the ground, 78 feet by 53 feet, coated in a heavy black and white paint. The pattern painted on the targets is sets of parallel and perpendicular bars duplicated at 15 or so different sizes, and, sometimes, a large white square. The configuration is sometimes referred to as a 5:1 aspect Tri-bar Array, and follows a similar relative scale as a common resolution test chart known as the 1951 USAF Resolving Power Test Target. This type of test pattern is normally used as a printed chart in an optics lab, to determine the resolving power of microscopes, telescopes, cameras, and scanners. Their outsized, outdoor brethren are in the laboratory of the landscape.
The targets function like an eye chart at the optometrist, where the smallest group of bars that can be resolved marks the limit of the resolution for the optical instrument that is being used. For aerial photography, it provides a platform to test, calibrate, and focus aerial cameras traveling at different speeds and altitudes. The targets can also be used in the same way by satellites.
Many of these resolution test targets are found in the Mojave Desert of California, one of the principal development and test areas for surveillance aircraft. Some of the most sophisticated aircraft made by the nation, like the A12 and SR-71 Blackbird and the U-2, were unarmed, and designed to be used only as flying cameras. The X-15, which still holds the record for the fastest manned aircraft, flew over these targets in the 1950s carrying Fairchild and Hycon cameras, pointed at the ground. Drones, developed and flown extensively in the Mojave, were also developed as camera platforms. Initially at least.
These three aerial photographic calibration targets remaining at Cuddeback Lake, in Southern California, are relics from the aerial viewing revolution. Designed to measure and calibrate cameras on spy planes from the era of analog photography, these terrestrial test patterns are now obsolete, and decaying. Brush is breaking through the paved surface, forming dendritic cracks, attacking the precision of the rectilinear test bars. The two dimensional graphic is becoming a three-dimensional landscape again. Photographs by CLUI.
Though apparently still used for some optical camera testing and calibration, the standard tri-bar photo targets are definitely a thing of the past. The 1951 Resolution Test Chart on which it is based is more than 60 years old and was designed for film cameras, and predates high-resolution digital systems and CCDs. The arrangement and spacing of the lines is not well suited for computer analysis (it’s not a continuous single row, but two or three rows of pairs), and it has other frequency and modulation issues that make determining sharpness by digital means inaccurate. The Air Force officially cancelled the chart, known as MIL-STD-150A, for photographic lenses in 2006, without replacement. The outdoor landscape test patterns are mostly abandoned and decaying.
These analog targets, built for secret spy planes and hidden in plain sight, are now obsolete, but visible to the world through satellite imaging in the digital age.
There are dozens of these photo targets in the United States, mostly near runways at military bases. The largest concentration of them is on the grounds of Edwards Air Force Base, in Southern California, in an area referred to as the photo resolution range, where more than a dozen targets are spread out along 20 miles on the southeast side of the base, in a line, so multiple targets can be photographed in one pass. There is some variation in the size and shape of the targets at Edwards, suggesting updates and modifications for specific programs. A number of the targets there also have aircraft hulks next to them, added to provide additional, realistic subjects for testing cameras. Some of these planes are themselves unusual and rare military jets, officially in the collection of the base museum, despite being left out on the range. The following images are from Google Earth.
by Christopher Langley with photographs by Osceola Refetoff
In a sense, all photographs are ‘viewfinders.’ The window is also a ‘finder of a view,’ whether from within or without; as such, it acts as a surrogate for the camera lens and the process of photography.
– The Window in Photographs Karen Hellman
William Fox, a curator and poet, has described the “cognitive dissonance in isotropic places” we encounter in deserts. The human sensory system struggles to process the landscapes in the deserts of the American West, what seems neverending sameness in all directions. We simply cannot make sense of what seems a lack of information. Our brain stalls in its processing job. We fall back in awe of both the desert beauty before us, and something more that remains hidden from us. Our visual perception of the landscape has failed us.
A photograph provides a solution—a frame. The edge of print paper, the shift from light to dark, makes a border. The photograph acts as a window to help us imagine what we cannot otherwise see, even by the most careful looking. It does so by controlling our perception while encouraging the brain to construct what lies just beyond the edge of the photograph. Now the brain is back in control.
Desert Vista, Cinco California (2009)
The images here, selected from photographer Osceola Refetoff’s desert windows series, invite the viewer to look out at the desert through the windows of abandoned, decaying buildings in the Mojave Desert. We can now see the desert landscape anew with less danger of cognitive wipe out.
Consider “Desert Vista,” photographed through the weathered paneling of a trailer from a failed alfalfa farm north of Mojave, California. The photograph’s frame begins the process, but the window frame itself controls the observer’s experience of the flat plain that flows to the horizon and off to the left and right. The desert light shines in, illuminating the narrow molding of the window on the left and bottom. The depth of the view through perspective is thus reinforced. The window view is pristine, wasted and desolate. The image is flat to the point of appearing like a print pasted over the glass of the window. The depth of the horizon is difficult to determine. This kind of emptiness, particular in the Mojave, is only possible because of human intervention. The area was scraped and flattened to plant an alfalfa crop decades ago. Otherwise, it would be covered with creosote bush. The sky has no clouds for visual reference and produces the same effect as the land. We only see the sky growing paler as it moves to meet the horizon line. This image shows us much about the desert that might be otherwise lost in the brain’s struggle to make sense of what seems empty.
Desert Kitchen, Cinco, California (2010)
“It’s a Mess Without You!,” Cinco, California ( 2011)
Another two images, “Desert Kitchen” and “It’s a Mess without You!” show the same kitchen, photographed a year apart. In the first, the outside image of another trailer, torn by the wind and vandalized by passersby, is seen. It looks like it could be a mirror image of where the photographer’s camera has been placed. In the kitchen, things are not all right. The light is unromantic, and one cabinet is doorless and empty, the other veiled by a wood front. The peeling wallpaper, the sink full of junk, and even the window frame are cheap in style and quality. In the second photograph, we are in the same kitchen, but now the sink has been removed, perhaps to be recycled for some other kitchen, and the words “It’s a mess without you” are spray painted on the wall. This is more than a simple apology for bad housekeeping habits; the devastation is evident.
These photographs in Refetoff’s desert window series are both ambiguous and a reflection on the loss of memory and the passage of time. They remind us that much of our culture and economy are transitory, unsustainable, and leave only wind-worn wastelands behind—and now even the trailers are gone, wiped from the land to make way for the Beacon Solar Energy Project off Highway 14 north of Mojave, California.
Love, Faith, Hope, Cinco, California (2010)
In “Love, Faith, Hope,” the window has a rust red frame. There is a view of a decayed wooden fence and a dried, short-grass-covered desert flatland with barren hills beyond. Refetoff builds up several layers of meaning: the inside of the view, the window and its frame, the outside view, and the high and dry desert beyond. But for Refetoff, the words over the frame feel somehow art directed. He wonders if the scene is an art project or perhaps the abandoned set of a film or music video. If true, this adds another layer of meaning, or at least ambiguity. The risk of cognitive dissonance remains: everything has been repurposed. Nothing is as it appears.
An irony of this series is that many of the interior spaces look more real than the exteriors. Because the images are not composites, they are both equally “real.” Refetoff explains that “the physics of lens optics makes it impossible to focus on both the foreground and background simultaneously. Only a single focal plain can be in focus with this type of camera. Using a small aperture, an optical illusion called the ‘circle of confusion’ allows the exteriors to appear in focus, while only the foregrounds are actually in focus. This illusion begins to break down when the images are printed in larger sizes. I wanted the views outside the windows to be as sharp as possible, as the eye is naturally drawn to them. Digital prints are typically sharpened for enlargement, so I selectively applied a bit of additional sharpening to the exteriors, introducing a slightly ‘processed’ feel. This caused the ‘natural’ exteriors to look somewhat ‘artificial’ while the cheap trailer interiors appear almost painfully ‘real.’”
The desert is always mutable. Today it is full of the modern ruins of failed human endeavor. The houses with windows wait. For what? The wind sets to work peeling, pushing, tearing. Then vandals join in, throwing rocks at the panes. The sun desiccates the cheap fiberboard, the flimsy shingles, the painted frames of wood. Visitors come to make scenes of these settings. The slow-motion process of decay keeps working away.
Window with Creosote Bush, Dunmovin, California (2010)
Window with Jagged Glass, Dunmovin, California (2010)
Empty Room with Recliner, Mojave, California (2013)