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Through a lens, sharply: Photographer’s pictures reflect desert’s splendor, scale

Our desert is such an expansive place, a poem of silence and space between basin and range, it can disrupt all sense of scale.

Humans hiking across a distant dry lake shrink to colored specks. And those tan hills that look no more than an hour’s walk off the highway might take a traveler two days by horseback to reach.

An exquisite sense of desert scale is one of many things I like about photographer Jamey Stillings’ work. Although he’s experienced in many forms, to my mind Stillings is at his absolute best with his recent documentary work, 2012’s “The Bridge at Hoover Dam” and last year’s “The Evolution of Ivanpah Solar.”

Following the progress through photographs of the construction of the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge over the Colorado River is to be reminded of much of what’s good about our civilization. And the scale of it all still sends my mind racing and stuns me to silence.

His Ivanpah Solar monograph is a masterful black-and-white treatment of the creation of one of the world’s largest renewable energy systems on a dry lake bed just off Interstate 15 beyond the Nevada-California state line. It is stark and strange, but provides a sort of testimony to the nation’s uneasy march of energy progress.

There’s no way to look at the pages of the book and not have Stillings’ art mix with your own personal politics. Whether you’re thinking of the environment, or the evolution of our nation’s energy portfolio, the photographs are more than a conversation starter. A fire starter, is more like it.

But the scale, oh, the scale of it all is amazing.

“In art, as in life, perspective is an essential ingredient in understanding,” Stillings writes. “And if we think about it, understanding is a journey, not a point of arrival; as we add time, experience, and knowledge, our understanding evolves.”

It’s an understanding he reached in the course of photographing the 5.4-square-mile expanse of parched earth and greasewood from 2010 to 2014. The effort included 19 flyovers and several ground visits, he said.

“I see Ivanpah as symbolic of the promise and challenge we face in building a sustainable civilization, both for ourselves and future generations,” Stillings writes.

The geometric shapes created during the construction process are sure to remind some of a deity’s Etch-a-Sketch pad. Others will surely wonder whether the much-abused desert would have been better off left alone.

What has poured forth from the Ivanpah solar facility has powered the political arguments of friend and foe alike on the subject of the progress and practicality of renewable energy. As I turned pages, I couldn’t help thinking how much easier on the environment it might have been had the federal government put more millions into rooftop solar instead of megaprojects in the dear and damaged desert.

In his foreword, Robert Redford offers a tempered perspective on the work and the land it touches.

“As a long-time environmental activist and supporter of the arts, I find Jamey’s work compelling for its ability to observe and respect both nature and human-made environments, while drawing us to the dynamic energy and tension created at their intersections,” he writes. “Storytellers have the power to broaden our minds and shift the way we think about complex environmental issues. Through his continued documentation of renewable energy development, Jamey enters into the cast of characters shaping the way we navigate our energy future.”

(For examples of Stillings’ work, visit jameystillings.com.)

These days, our energy future is increasingly found in arid lands, out where only the desert is capable of keeping the things of man in their proper perspective.

— John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. Contact him at 702 383-0295, or jsmith@reviewjournal.com. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith.

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