PDN Photo of the Day

Photographing at the Dawn of Solar Energy

The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System came online in December, 2013, focusing the light of 173,500 heliostats on solar receivers to boil water into steam, generating electricity for Southern California. During its construction, Jamey Stillings photographed the growing array of glass and metal, making 19 flights over the site and several visits on the ground, documenting the five square mile patch of Mojave Desert as it was transformed into the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant. The results are collected in The Evolution of Ivanpah Solar, published next month by Steidl, which documents the plant’s growth and attempts to put its environmental impact, which includes danger to birds and desert tortoises, into the larger context of global warming.

Stillings became interested in the site after spending two years photographing the construction of the Mike O’Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, downstream from Hoover Dam, (The Bridge at Hoover Dam published by Nazraeli Press in 2011), where he started thinking about the changing nature of renewable energy. “If you look at some of the photography of Hoover Dam in the 1930s, our perception of dams is different [from what] it was 80 years ago,” Stillings tells PDN. Recording large scale solar power in its infancy was important to Stillings since he believes the technology and our relationship to it is still evolving. In the book’s essay, environmental journalist Bruce Barcott makes a trip to a tortoise nursery, where the species is being preserved; Robert Redford, in the book’s foreword, calculates that more birds are killed by fossil fuels than by flying into Ivanpah’s “flux field.” Balancing the costs and benefits of solar energy is an ongoing question, but Stillings says he is “at heart, a social documentary photographer,” and interested in using photography to document “our attempts at solutions, rather than just looking at problems.”

When starting to work on the project, Stillings turned to work he had done with Bauch + Lomb as a model, documenting the construction of their Rochester, New York headquarters. There, Stillings had a key to the construction site and unlimited access, along with financial support from the company. “When there was two feet of snow on the ground on a Sunday morning, I could be there; when the cooling tower was being lifted into place on top of the building, I could be up in position to take that. I looked at that model, of corporate support with editorial independence, as something I might try with Ivanpah,” he says.

He approached BrightSource Energy, one of the owners of Ivanpah, about a similar idea, profiling workers on the site, highlighting the “green” jobs the project was creating and following the impact of those jobs in the local community. But talks with BrightSource and Bechtel, the site’s contractor, ultimately didn’t work out, and Stillings decided to move forward without their support, focusing on what he could access: the air. “Sometimes, limitations help me recognize a greater opportunity,” writes Stillings in an artist’s statement. Shooting mostly from a helicopter, Stillings built a body of work that highlights the geometries of the solar field, recording its changing texture at dawn and under fading light. Using a Nikon D800 and mix of Nikkor and Zeiss lenses with a gyroscope, Stillings found a “sweet spot” in the range of 1500 to 2500 feet above the desert, “a place where I can see detail and also bring the project into perspective within the landscape.”

Once Stillings had built a body of work from the air, he was able to access a bit of the construction site on the ground, with help from an assignment letter from The New York Times. By the time Ivanpah was up and running, its owners were happy with the photos Stillings had made, and invited him and Barcott to tour the site. “At the end of the project, of course, everyone is delighted that the work is here,” Stillings says.

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