Terran Tales of the Paranormal
THE WASHINGTON POST – Of the United States (US) sites that fascinate paranormal enthusiasts, Nevada Area 51 and Roswell, New Mexico are the most famous, but Skinwalker Ranch has the most colorful name. The eastern Utah property, the subject of an online photo exhibit hosted by the University of Maryland Art Gallery, evokes the Navajo myth of a vengeful shaman who can take the form of other creatures. It’s a great branding for a place that has long been associated with stories of UFOs and other unverified phenomena, and which was recently the subject of a factually questionable History Channel series, The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch.
It’s too late to do it, but the best way to approach photographer Christopher Bartel The Skinwalker Ranch Portfolio would be in total ignorance. The 80 images (from an archive of 1,500) are divided into four thematic sections and present many aspects of the 512-acre region. It is a strikingly beautiful high desert landscape characterized by large skies and small curiosities, most notably the kind of Indian artifacts that Bartel hunted all his life. The skillfully composed and illuminated photographs capture many aspects of where Bartel worked as a security guard from 2010 to 2016, while then-owner Robert T Bigelow reportedly conducted a Pentagon-funded investigation into supposed mysteries about his lands.
Here’s the non-spoiler alert: The images do not show anything paranormal, alien, or in any way unexpected.
Bartel does not claim otherwise. Of the 80 photos, the only one he associates with anything strange is Large dog trails, which documents the unusually long stride of an animal that was likely a wolf. While sipping coffee recently at a beer garden on Capitol Hill, Bartel told the story of meeting a wolf. He found the experience strange, but that doesn’t mean it was supernatural.
The Kansas-native photographer was in Washington to meet with Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah, and was joined by Taras Matla, associate director of the University of Maryland Art Gallery. It was Matla who discovered Bartel’s photos on social networks, thanks to her personal interest in UFOs (now officially designated UAP, for “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena”). Matla invited Bartel to present an exhibition at the gallery, which led the artist to decide to donate all of her photos of Skinwalker to the university.
“I felt like there was something else there, but I couldn’t see it,” Bartel said of the ranch. “That’s why I wanted to donate the images to a university. To have more eyes in the pictures. So, maybe at least someone else could see something that I might have missed.
It is certainly possible. But judging from the photos in the series, what other eyes might see won’t be something that fans of weird science will love.
The portfolio depicts rocks, grass, snow, clouds and Bartel’s frequent companions: a trio of ranch dogs. (There’s even a posed still life of her herbal groceries.)
The photographer, who shoots with compact, mirrorless Sony digital cameras, switches from color to black and white, and from close-ups to epic views.
Bartel cites Ansel Adams as inspiration, but he usually places his camera closer to his subjects than Adams. Bartel shot like what he was: a guard doing his rounds.
There are some spooky images in the selection, but they don’t reveal anything supernatural.
A few depict the remains of skeletal animals, but most are abandoned buildings whose decay illustrates both the inevitable decay and the limited attention span of humanity.
Maybe it’s also good that people tend to lose interest. The current vogue for Skinwalker Ranch will fade, much like the paint on the walls of a house left in the wind, snow and sand to be demolished.
And, as Bartel’s photographs eloquently show, the earth will endure.