The Sublime, Surprising Beauty of the World’s Largest Solar Power Plant

When Jamey Stillings began his ambitious photographic project, Evolution of Ivanpah Solar, he considered himself an uncomplicated proponent of renewable and alternative energy sources. Now, after three years and thousands of photographs of the development of a massive solar power plant in the Mojave Desert, Stillings has a new appreciation for the compromise and balance necessitated by such projects, and the complex issues they raise in the very environment they’re trying to protect. “If we are going to create sustainable energy resources, we will start to see those resources,” he says. “They’re going to be close to us. There will be wind turbines on hill sides, PV panels on our rooftops and everything in between. That’s a reality and it’s important for us.”

When it was completed in 2013, Ivanpah became the largest solar thermal power plant in the world, a dazzling field of 344,000 mirrors focusing the sun’s energy toward three giant towers and producing enough energy to power 140,000 homes. But in 2010 it was a mostly-barren stretch of desert, home to a diverse ecosystem at the heart of a fierce environmentalist debate—and that’s what initially attracted Stillings, who was just wrapping up another multi-year photo project documenting the construction of a bridge at the Hoover Dam. “I wanted to be proactive in seeking out a compelling new subject that would integrate my interest in the intersections of nature and human activity with my environmental concerns in issues of sustainability,” he says. So Stillings embarked on a three-year project to capture the development of the plant from above, watching as the mirrors transformed a lunar Californian landscape into something abstract and equally otherworldly.

The photographs of the Ivanpah portfolio, each titled after the day they were taken, mark a radical departure from Stillings’ Hoover Dam project, whose low angles and foreboding, cinematic lighting look like what might happen if Gregory Crewdson were commissioned to shoot architecture. The new work’s look is a combination of happenstance and deliberate experimentation. Stillings shot all of the sweeping aerial photographs from a helicopter, because he could not gain the necessary permits to enter the site on foot. He printed the first Ivanpah images in color, but on a Photoshop whim tried some in black-and-white and felt an immediate, visceral reaction, one that was validated when he showed both color and grayscale versions at a festival soon after. And it’s hard to argue with the final results—the stunning, abstract-leaning compositions are eerie, overwhelming reminders of the lengths we must go to, and sacrifices we must make, if we are truly to change how we fuel our modern lives.

Discover more work by Jamey Stillings and other incredible photographers at Santa Fe’s photo-eye gallery.

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