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Book Review: The Evolution of Ivanpah Solar


Book Review The Evolution of Ivanpah Solar By Jamey Stillings Reviewed by George Slade Stillings’ photographs of the new bridge surmounting Hoover Dam, and the 2011 Nazraeli book featuring them, left me underwhelmed. Drama dominates; the landscape, the construction, the oversized geometry and scale of the thing, and the book reflecting it all, seemed at once too grand and too simplistic.

The Evolution of Ivanpah SolarBy Jamey Stillings
Steidl, 2015.
 
The Evolution of Ivanpah Solar
Reviewed by George Slade

The Evolution of Ivanpah Solar
Photographs by Jamey Stillings. Text by Bruce Barcott. Foreword by Robert Redford. Introduction by Anne Tucker.
Steidl, Gottingen, Germany, 2015. 148 pp., 60 tritone illustrations, 9¼x13½".

Stillings’ photographs of the new bridge surmounting Hoover Dam, and the 2011 Nazraeli book featuring them, left me underwhelmed. Drama dominates; the landscape, the construction, the oversized geometry and scale of the thing, and the book reflecting it all, seemed at once too grand and too simplistic. No offense intended, Jamey Stillings, but the images seem kind of “can’t miss;” certainly not easy to make, given the multitude of angles, points of view, and varying lighting conditions over a two-year period, but easy to grasp.

Spectacle commands the frame of those photographs, drowning out the subtleties and pleasures, for this reader, of discovery between the lines, of dimensions beyond height and width. Seeing this set of Stillings’ photographs reminded me of looking at portraits of beautiful men and women, actors, or famous musicians; one is often swept up by the material itself, not what the images make of it. In the words of Garry Winogrand, the content overwhelms the form.

The Evolution of Ivanpah SolarBy Jamey StillingsSteidl, 2015.

Stillings’ dedication was clear in the bridge photographs; I admire his capacity for close, extended attention, and his conviction that his work would result in a significant chronicle. That same commitment over time and the search for appropriate form as a photographer and book artist resurface to far greater effect in his new book. Once again Stillings is recording colossal-scale construction, but he has upped the ante for himself and his photographic talents by addressing material — the building of giant solar energy collectors — that seems fairly non-picturesque, set in a desert landscape that is, at best, unpromising in all but the most skillful and eloquently utilized lenses.

The Evolution of Ivanpah SolarBy Jamey StillingsSteidl, 2015.

The photographic equation all comes together in this book. The effect is enhanced by the inherent urgency of the pursuit of energy in the 21st century, coupled with texts by three people — an actor, a curator, and an engineer — who solidly explicate three crucial dimensions of the work. But despite the nominal presence of Robert Redford and Anne Wilkes Tucker, the photographs and the book designed around them hold the spotlight. The photographs describe the slow application of geometry to a wild, open space. The black-and-white Stillings employed in the work underscores both the formal, essentially graphic quality of this industrial process and the otherworldly yet straightforward nature of the mission — using mirrors to concentrate and harvest the sun’s immense energy. Black-and-white is intrinsically reductive, while color is expansive, and the minimal works quite expressively here.

The Evolution of Ivanpah SolarBy Jamey StillingsSteidl, 2015.
The Evolution of Ivanpah SolarBy Jamey StillingsSteidl, 2015.

I tend not to like books that force me to turn them 90 degrees, transforming a vertical volume into a top-bound horizontal one. This one follows that model, but it’s a negligible issue; the shift disappears into the book’s somewhat loose chronology of landscape reconfiguring, for which landscape orientation is correct; the book shifts back to vertical for the texts. An ideal reading of the book takes and rewards slow attention; as in the bridge pictures, the narrative evolves over time, and is heightened by close reading of both captions and images. Perspectives don’t alter much; Stillings may have realized that there were limited ways to envision this project. All but three or four of the book’s photographs were made from airplanes, mainly at dusk and dawn when the contours and objects received the highest level of definition. The growing fields of mirrors, sprouting two on a stalk and following patterns that call to mind Marilyn Bridges’ aerial photographs of ancient earthworks or Emmet Gowin’s elevated views of more recent human markings, can be seen accumulating in number (to reach, all told, 173,500 stalks) as they are building capacity for gathering power. That is, the concentration of solar energy into a super boiler unit, creating steam that drives dynamos and creates electricity.

The Evolution of Ivanpah SolarBy Jamey StillingsSteidl, 2015.

Ivanpah Solar is a bold and innovative dream, enabled by high tech, high volume industrial manufacturing and expansive tracts of otherwise underemployed land. (The numbers at the back of the book detailing the construction and production of the three Ivanpah fields are astonishing.) The volume crafted by Steidl reinforces the glowing, wondrous quality of the dream — silver emanates from the midtones of these photographs, while the cover and endpapers literally gleam. Stillings and the book’s designers emulate the reflective quality of those thousands of mirrors with appropriate discretion; if you expect a glaring spectacle in these photographs, you’ll be disappointed. But allow yourself to enter the stream and be carried along in the flow of intelligent evolution, and you will experience the wonder of a powerful, important subject meeting its ideal rendering.—GEORGE SLADE

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GEORGE SLADE, a longtime contributor to photo-eye, is a photography writer, curator, historian and consultant. He can be found online at http://rephotographica-slade.blogspot.com/


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