Skip to main content

From the Editors Our Land

Photographer Trevor Paglen documents visible artifacts of the U.S. government’s global network of secrecy. Capturing fleeting or oblique images of surveillance satellites, drones, and “black sites,” he produces studies of landscapes (and skyscapes) that harbor evidence: a small black speck in the clouds; geometric arcs of light across the nighttime sky; a hazy cluster of buildings on an otherwise empty horizon; the terminus of a nondescript dead end road.

The reception of Paglen’s photographs has often noted their citation of the work of artists ranging from the English Romantic landscape painter J.M.W. Turner to the contemporary German visual artist Gerhard Richter. Taking into account the political performances that are both the act of taking and the act of displaying his photographs, we here supply another possible citation: American folk singer Woody Guthrie.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway,
I saw below me that golden valley,
This land was made for you and me.

This, Guthrie’s most famous lyric—indeed, the whole song—applies a political ideal to the beloved landscape before him. Like Guthrie, Paglen looks to the sky, the valley, and the desert for artistic and political meanings. After all, Paglen’s photographs are not merely about secrecy; they are about poking at a system whose secret actions undermine its own democracy. Paglen describes his artwork as political performance; how else would Guthrie have described his own music?

Paglen’s images are always about approaching limits. The checkpoints at “black sites,” the perimeters of military testing grounds, the night sky itself. Behind his images, and beneath his very project, we can hear Guthrie’s voice singing:

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said, “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side, it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

+ posts

Leave a Reply