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BEST OF 2014, Jamey Stillings
Santa Fe, NM
Jamey Stillings spent three and a half years making aerial landscapes in the Mojave Desert for The Evolution of Ivanpah Solar. Ivanpah Solar is now the world’s largest concentrated solar thermal power plant. The first solo exhibit of this work debuted in August, and a book is planned for spring 2015. Stillings is also working on Changing Perspectives: Energy in the American West, a more extensive look at utility-scale renewable energy.

© Jamey Stillings

© Jamey Stillings

“I’m focusing predominantly on potential solutions to our energy dilemma,” he says about the project. “I want to document this evolution, be a part of the conversation and decision-making process and provide us perspective when we are several years down the road.”

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

Jamey Stillings: I’ve been in business since 1983.

ASMP: What initially prompted you to join ASMP?

JS: I joined ASMP in 1984 for a variety of reasons. Coming out of graduate school with an emphasis on fine art and documentary work, I had a limited commercial skill set. ASMP gave me a place to learn good business practices, understand copyright and licensing, and gain specific skills to improve my technical and aesthetic abilities. It also was a place to build a community of peers. Along with Forest McMullen and others, we started ASMP’s Western New York chapter.

ASMP: What has made you stay an ASMP member since 1984?

JS: Very simply, the value I gain by being a part of an organization that educates and advocates for professional photographers far exceeds the moderate cost of membership. One well-negotiated image license or assignment contract each year more than pays for the value of the resources ASMP offers me, as well as thousands of others.

ASMP: What do you consider the most valuable aspect of your ASMP membership?

JS: At this point, it is two-fold: being part of a professional and cooperative community that will always help each other out, and a tremendous resource base where we can access important professional information and assistance when needed.

ASMP: What is the most important relationship you’ve formed through your ASMP membership?

JS: I have some tremendous and important friendships formed, in part, through ASMP. One of my best and dearest friends I met through ASMP/WNY. She worked with me for a few years, and has gone on to build a wonderfully successful career in her own right. We make it a point to offer each other advice, encouragement, and support, while watching our respective families grow and experience the world. There is nothing more valuable in the world than good friendships!

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

JS: I have worn many photographic hats during the past few decades. I take on large-scale, conceptually based advertising productions, as well as small footprint documentary-style projects. I have worked in the studio and on location around the world. When it comes down to it, two particular strengths emerge: I love photographing people, whether portraits or in documentary work; and I love looking at the big broad impact of the intersection of nature and human activity through aerial and landscape work.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable tool or piece of equipment?

JS: My intuition.

ASMP: What is unique about your approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

JS: The amazing work I see from other photographers each week keeps me humble and aware of the diversity of photographic talent in the world. That being said, I have a great sensitivity for seeing expression and gesture in my portrait work. I love building a quiet connection of respect within my imagery. On the aerial and landscape side, a strength is trusting my sensitivity to light and composition, knowing how to marry it with my technical skills, and being willing to follow my intuition as the most rapid and direct way to create images of strength.

ASMP: When and how did you first hear of the Ivanpah Solar thermal power plant, and how far along was the construction when you took your first pictures in 2010?

JS: I was following several prospective large-scale solar projects in 2010, as I was completing The Bridge at Hoover Dam project. Ivanpah Solar was at the top of the list. While teaching at the Santa Fe Workshops in fall of 2010, one of my students turned out to be the wife of BrightSource Energy’s CEO. BrightSource is the technology company behind Ivanpah Solar and a 20 percent owner in the finished solar plant. I photographed the site, at my own initiative in October 2010, before construction at the site began. This allowed me to document the project from start to finish.

ASMP: What aspects of the Ivanpah Solar construction project have most captured your attention?

JS: Most of my work during the project, with the exception of an assignment for the New York Times Magazine, was aerial photography above the site, early and late, over a three-and-a-half year period. I was fascinated with the changes inherent in each phase of the project’s construction — from the very first marks delineating the future site, through to the plant’s completion and production of power. Each visit required me to assess what was most visually and informationally interesting within the context of previous work I had completed over the site. The interest and challenges held strong through the entire project, though I must say I have a special affinity for the earliest photographs when early marks on the land held mystery and had not yet revealed their ultimate form and function.

ASMP: Why did you choose to photograph this project in black and white? What process or camera functions do you use to achieve this?

JS: Because the Bridge project had been in color, Ivanpah photography began as RAW color capture. At the front end of a project, I am exploring, thinking, evaluating; essentially evolving to a visual or aesthetic approach that makes sense for the subject. I had been photographing for more than a year when it came time to prepare a portfolio of work for FotoFest 2012. As I began to image a few selects from the project, I experimented with color, muted color, and then black-and-white (BW). As soon as I tried a few images in BW, it seemed like the correct approach. This was affirmed by reviewers’ positive responses to the new work in Houston.

From October 2010 – April 2012, I shot with a Canon 5D M3 and a mix of Canon and Zeiss lenses. Beginning in June 2012, I switched for the aerial work to a Nikon D800e with a mix of Nikkor and Zeiss lenses. For imaging, I usually start editing in Lightroom, then make initial adjustments there as well. Color luminance, contrast, and clarity are all incorporated into an approach to tonal separation and local contrast. Files are then opened in Photoshop and worked in layered files to completion. Fine art prints are created in three sizes: 28 x 20 inches, 44 x 31 inches, and 64 x 44 inches.

ASMP: Your vantage point for this project is aerial. How much aerial photography had you done previously? From what heights did you photograph? Please describe the optimal time of day and weather conditions for shooting these images.

JS: I have done a bit of aerial work over the past few decades, but never in a concentrated way until the Bridge project in 2009 and 2010. The aerial focus for Ivanpah came, in part, because I could not gain the type of ground access necessary to undertake a proper documentary project. In retrospect, it’s always your limitation that pushes you to focus on the opportunity at hand! I photographed from about 500 to 6,000 feet above the site, but the sweet spot was about 500 to 2,500 feet over the site. I prefer first and last sunlight, as it does the best job of revealing the desert’s textures and hidden secrets. No haze please! But I love clouds when I can order them!

ASMP: Were you photographing exclusively from an airplane and, if so, what was your access to planes and pilots? Given the timeframe of a three-year documentation, how often did you make photographs?

JS: The entire project was shot from a helicopter with an open door and a gyro. I flew in Robinson R44’s and R22’s, as well as the Schweizer 300C, which is not sexy, but a very practical workhorse machine. I preferred flying with the same pilots several times, if possible, as it gave us time to develop a coordinated and choreographed approach to each shoot. I flew 18 times during 16 trips over a period of three and a half years.

ASMP: Have you ever used drones for your image making? Given recent developments regarding image making with drones, please share your thoughts on the use of this type of technology for recording the geographic and social landscape.

JS: I am about to try out a drone to see how it relates to my way of image making. I can see its use for scouting, motion applications and photography over remote locations where a helicopter or airplane is impractical. Given the speed and fluidity of my shooting process, I do not foresee it replacing my physical presence in the air with camera in hand anytime soon.

That being said, the use of drones and the fact that they may become as ubiquitous as smartphones in the next few years raises all sorts of interesting and provocative questions. Where does the journalistic right of investigation interfere with the right to privacy? What are legitimate concerns between or among individuals when privacy is involved? Between the government and the individual? What about the right to peace and quiet on public wilderness or park lands? What about safety in urban settings and other locations where people and property may be hurt? We have a lot to think about and sort out over the next few years. In the interim, my ten-year-old son is likely to become the “operator assistant” in the near future!

ASMP: What kind of permissions did you need to secure in order for you to make pictures of this site? Was any special permission required for your first shoot? If not, at what point did you seek official access and what channels did you go through?

JS: The airspace over Ivanpah is public airspace, so I did not seek permission from any of the project’s partners: BrightSource Energy, NRG Energy or Google. Neither did I from the project’s general contractor, Bechtel. That being said, we always exercise a safety-first approach with the pilot having veto over any maneuver I might suggest. I usually let one of the project partners know I would be flying, so that they knew it was related to my ongoing documentary work. As the project proceeded, there was greater interest in the fact that I had been documenting since the project’s start.

There were only a few times when I was on the ground during construction. The first was in June 2012 with a letter of assignment from the New York Times Magazine. The second was as part of a commercial shoot for Sony Music and The Fray in autumn 2013.

ASMP: What aspects of the construction process were most compelling to you and why?

JS: Trying to decipher the early marks made to delineate and define the project was fascinating. The apparent randomness of heliostat (mirror) placement, which actually was very precisely defined, was also intriguing. Unlike the Bridge project, where the near-finished bridge became harder to photograph in an interesting and distinct way, Ivanpah retained its visual interest and challenge all the way through to its completion.

ASMP: What kinds of interactions have you had with project engineers and/or corporate and government officials in pursing this project? What has been their reaction to your work?

JS: I have had many positive interactions with project engineers, corporate personnel, and government officials along the way. Almost all of them have been positive. That being said, there are a few caveats. I understand the potential contemporary value and the eventual historic value of this work in a way that many do not. For the general public to understand and support renewable energy, they need to see it and understand it. This is the value of sharing the work in the editorial world, whether in print or on the Internet. The engineers are most appreciative because the products of their labors are rarely documented in an aesthetic fashion. Only near the end of the three-and-a-half year project did some of the corporate folks fully appreciate the value of having the project’s evolution documented. And it was wonderful to have the Library of Congress acquire a portfolio of photographs from The Evolution of Ivanpah Solar even before I completed the body of work.

ASMP: Is there a market for licensing your images among the contractors and corporate agencies involved with the Ivanpah Solar project?

JS: My rule is that I must have independence when shooting work for a documentary project with no editorial direction or constraints from corporate entities. (The exception is when it involves proprietary information and trade secrets.) I desire to get the work out into the world via a wide range of editorial and environmental outlets. That being said, later licensing of imagery to corporate entities involved with the project has helped defray the costs of producing a very expensive long-term aerial project. All licensing is done through my studio.

ASMP: Please talk about other technical aspects of the photography. What additional skills or techniques have you discovered or employed during these shoots?

JS: All equipment must be of best quality, calibrated and double-checked. Nothing sucks worse than a lens that does not focus properly or is of inferior quality. If I am going to be flying only once every three months, if my trip is going to cost $1,500 to $3,000, if my window of great light is 15 to 30 minutes, then the last thing I want to worry about is a technical issue. I want to focus only on making interesting photographs that contribute to the existing body of work for the project.

When we start an aerial shoot before dawn, I am typically using an open aperture, slow shutter speed, a high ISO, and my ever-trusty gyro. My goal is to move to an optimal aperture (f/5.6 or f/8), higher shutter speed (1/500 or faster), and a moderate ISO (ISO 500 or below) as rapidly as possible. If my technical awareness and skills are properly tuned, then I am able to spend most of my time seeing.

ASMP: Energy and where it comes from is certainly an important subject at this time, but are there any particular circumstances or issues (personal, political, global, etc.) that have inspired your work on this project?

JS: I am focusing predominantly on potential solutions to our energy dilemma. Our shift to renewable energy should be swift and dynamic over the next several years. We don’t know all the answers. We will make mistakes. If we are committed and diligent, we may avoid disaster for our species and the global ecosystem. I want to document this evolution, be a part of the conversation and decision-making process, and provide us perspective when we are several years down the road.

We are at a unique and difficult point in the evolution of our species — 250 years since the start of the Industrial Revolution and 155 years into the age of oil. In my lifetime, our world population has increased from 2.7 billion to 7.2 billion. As trite as it may sound, I feel a responsibility to my children and future generations, as well as to the entire global ecosystem.

ASMP: Your images are beautifully poetic, graphic and informative. What impact do you hope these images will have on viewers in terms of renewable energy and the environment?

JS: I want them to provoke thought, discussion and constructive, proactive decision-making toward a sustainable future. I am but one voice, but with the wonderful and powerful matrix of other committed photographers, I hope we contribute something of value.

ASMP: The Ivanpah Solar is the beginning of a larger project called “Changing Perspectives: Energy in the American West.” Please describe how you plan to continue the project and the types of sites you plan to photograph.

JS: Over the next few years, I will broaden my look at renewable energy in the American West, mostly by examining large-scale projects. I also wish to compare and contrast these projects with fossil fuel energy production. While I do not wish to duplicate the past and current work of others, I wish to communicate about a range of energy production within my visual vocabulary and understanding. As I gain a greater level of fiscal support for my work, I endeavor to build the project into one of global scale. If you ask me in five years, I hope I will have documented projects around the world on all continents.

ASMP: How many different sites do you anticipate the project to include at the end? Do you have a timeline for your expanded project and a projected finish date?

JS: I do not yet know how many sites I will document over the next few years. It depends how much time I can devote to the work (balanced out with commercial work and raising a family) and how much financial support I can attract. As you might imagine, it can cost as much for a day of aerial work, as for a month or more of ground-based documentary work. I plan to work on Changing Perspectives for at least another five years.

ASMP: Your Bridge over the Hoover Dam project was selected for the Best of ASMP in 2010. What effect did that recognition have on the project in particular and your career in general?

JS: I cannot say specifically what the Best of ASMP 2010 recognition did for the Bridge project and me. It was certainly helpful! The Bridge imagery captured the imagination of a wide range of people. It was a labor of love that found an audience. For that, I will always be grateful.

The lesson I’ve had to learn again and again in my creative career is this: Photograph what you must in this life, not because you should or because you think others want you to or might like it. Photograph because you have no other choice! If you follow this credo and you listen only to your creative voice and instincts, then the work will find its place in the world.

ASMP: Please describe how your current project has impacted your business to date. Has the project generated new clients or markets for your work? Has it given you new visibility with existing or past clients?

JS: I focus my business on supporting my family and facilitating my documentary projects. For assignment work, I am most interested in doing great work for my clients and less interested in being the “hot, sexy and cool” photographer. My documentary/fine art work has earned additional respect among existing clients, though I would not say it has generated new work or new clients specifically. For example, I’ve never been hired to photograph another bridge since completing The Bridge at Hoover Dam in 2010, even though there are amazing bridges being built all over the world that would be fascinating to document. Because I am working on a long-term photography project about renewable energy, I am reticent to seek assignment work from the renewable energy industry, lest I lose my independence.

ASMP: You’re planning to make The Evolution of Ivanpah Solar into a book and a traveling exhibition. Will you use the same methods and pursue the same channels that you used with the Bridge over Hoover Dam project? Will you be doing this new book with Nazraeli Press, or are you considering other publishers for this?

JS: I am using my current experience and an amazing group of friends and advisors to determine the best path for the new book and exhibition. Though Chris Pichler of Nazraeli Press and I are good friends after publishing the Bridge book together, he was not interested in the Ivanpah work. I pondered who would be my first choice of a publisher, if I could pick anyone. Steidl was at the top of my list. I approached Gerhard Steidl directly with the work in a beautifully designed electronic BLAD (book layout and design), and with my foreword, introduction and essay writers in place. Long story short, Steidl will be publishing the book in Spring 2015.

We are building a museum-quality exhibition and are looking for opportunities both in the United States and abroad. First solo exhibitions of the work are at Festival de la Luz in Buenos Aires (August to September 2014), the Center for Fine Art Photography in Fort Collins, Colorado (September to October 2014), and Etherton Gallery in Tucson, Arizona (November 2014 to January 2015).

ASMP: Please discuss your outreach and the considerations for exhibiting this work. Are there upcoming venues scheduled for this work to be exhibited or presented in public?

JS: One particular goal in exhibiting my work is to use it as a vehicle for creating community conversations about renewable energy and the difficult choices we face in transitioning away from fossil fuels. In Fort Collins, with the help of the Center for Fine Art Photography, the Northern Colorado Renewable Energy Society and others, we are creating just such an event on October 2nd: NCRES Special Event: The Evolution of Ivanpah Solar.

ASMP: Your fine are work is represented by both Etherton Gallery and photo-eye Gallery. Please talk about how these relationships were established and have evolved over time. Are there any considerations to address in being represented by two galleries within the same region?

JS: Both photo-eye Gallery and Etherton Gallery have been very supportive of my work. I approached Rixon Reed of photo-eye in July 2009 with a sampling of the early Bridge work. Just wanting his feedback — Rixon gave the Bridge work its first small exhibition alongside the quiet and powerful work of Nick Brandt. I contacted Terry Etherton in early 2010, first by sending him a catalog of photographs from the Bridge project, then via e-mail. Terry met with me in March 2010, reviewed the work and wanted to exhibit it in the gallery. The Etherton show in 2010 was alongside the amazing work of Michael Berman and Martin Stupich. Both galleries are enthusiastic about the Ivanpah Solar work and the directions I am going with Changing Perspectives. I greatly appreciate their support. There is no conflict between the two galleries. The “region” is quite big in the Southwest! Over the next two years, I hope to carefully add one or more galleries from different regions in the US and abroad to represent my work.

ASMP: What is the most important business advice you’ve ever received?

JS: Potential unrealized has no value. Potential gains value through time, endurance, hard work, patience, impatience and a belief in oneself.

ASMP: What’s been your most valuable business decision to date?

JS: I have experienced four recessions since starting my business. In the early ’80s, I was just leaving graduate school, so any economic direction after that was up. In the early ’90s, I could not separate who I was, as a human being and a photographer, from my financial challenges. After 9/11 in 2001, I accepted that I was a good human being and photographer with a bad set of economic numbers. In the Great Recession, I learned that I could be creative even when challenged financially. The most valuable decision of my recent career was to head out on a road trip in March 2009 with no agenda except to photograph for the sheer love of exploration, curiosity, and creativity. A few days out, I encountered a bridge under construction downstream from Hoover Dam. My decision to document that bridge, in spite of the economic insanity and impracticality it would entail during a severe recession, was the best photographic decision I could have made.

ASMP: What is the most important advice that you’d give a young photographer starting out now?

JS: Use your unique mix of energy, creativity, knowledge, gumption and naïveté to build something exciting and new!