As a fan of science fiction growing up in the 1950s, images of H.G. Wells’s Martian invaders were solidified in photographer Jay Tyrrell’s mind. So upon driving through a southern California wind turbine development, Wells’ fire-breathing tripod walkers immediately sprung to mind. In his project _Wind Army (available as an e-book, and a portion of which is on view at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art through February 26), Tyrrell puts the otherworldly landscape of the wind farm into the context of sci-fi. _
For insight into the science fiction inpiration behind Tyrrell’s project, we put him in touch with Alex Lubertozzi, who over the course of co-authoring The Complete War of the Worlds has done copious research into the 1898 H.G. Wells classic, and has traced the many forms this timeless story has taken over the course of the last century, from comic books in the 1930s to Steven Spielberg’s recent Tom Cruise blockbuster. —Ed.
Alex: What inspired you to create the Wind Army photographs and book?
Jay: We used to live in Palm Springs, and we would frequently go back and visit old friends. Over the years, this big wind farm began to take place at the bottom of the San Gorgonio Pass, and you would see literally thousands of wind turbines. They were pretty dramatic in and of themselves, but every time I saw them I would think of them as tripods, thinking of War of the Worlds.
I kept saying, one of these days I need to stop and photograph these. Then one trip I organized myself ahead of time, and loaded up a bunch of cameras and took them with me and started shooting. From that moment, I started specifically looking for parts of the story to tell. There’s one image in there, it’s the second one I took on the first morning, an image that I call “The Pod.” It was a wind turbine that had been put on the ground for some reason, sitting there all by itself nothing around it; it looked just like a pod that had landed. So that started it.
Alex: How did your love of science fiction and the War of the Worlds came about?
Jay: As a kid we were stationed for a great deal of time in Germany from ’52 to almost ’55. During that time I read a lot, and my fiction of choice always was science fiction. It was the most exciting thing that I read as a child, whether it was Ray Bradbury or Isaac Asimov or H.G. Wells or any of the great fathers of modern science fiction. I had lots of other things that I read, but that was the stuff that really fired up my imagination, that and movies like War of the Worlds or Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or Godzilla. If you were a young person in that age, it was pretty frightening stuff.
Alex: I remember reading somewhere when I was doing some research on my own book that H.G. Wells hated the illustrations [in the first publication of War of the Worlds] showing the tripods, because they were kind of these stiff and impractical looking things that never would have worked. It wasn’t how he envisioned them. It seems there have been hundreds of different imaginings of not only his but a lot of science fiction stories. How were you inspired by all the imagery surrounding these stories?
Jay: The imagery really came from that first series and the movie. You’re right, everybody has had their own opinion of what these tripods were supposed to look like. I always saw them as pretty rigid beasts. I think the movie that best depicted them was the Spielberg version that was released much later. That was really faithful to H.G. Wells’ story, in a way the 1953 movie wasn’t. The first movie was more about the cold war than it was about aliens.
Alex: One of the things I noticed with your photographs is how cinematic they are, with the panoramic landscape views of everything. And, of course, the black and white evokes an older time and asks you to focus on the shapes, by removing the natural colors. But one of the things I also was really drawn to in the photographs is the sense of stillness. They are sort of dystopian landscapes of machines, devoid of people. It’s a unique approach to War of the Worlds. What made you decide to go that way?
Jay: Well, I have always been fascinated by movies and by the shape of the movie that’s shown to you on the screen. You know, if you look at some of the great cinematographers, those were the kinds of things that really spoke to me and for a lot of work that I have done photographically I have used a Linhof 617 panoramic camera. It’s just a different way of looking at things. It forces you to sometimes grab odd angles and compose things just a little differently in order to tell your story. And at the same time, throughout this body of work and three or four others that I’ve exhibited, I’m always looking for a sense of quiet and stillness. That comes out in this series, as well. It’s just a style that I have that feels right to me, and it’s that vision I have of the world that I want to share with others.
Alex: The irony is, of course, that these wind turbines are meant to hopefully help save this planet. But your photographs makes them look very foreboding. I like that.
Jay: Oh, absolutely; that carries through in a lot of the images. There is one image called “Final Resting,” where we were in Scotland running along a back road, and I suddenly was shouting, “Stop the car, stop the car.” There was an old cemetery, and behind it on the hill were some wind turbines. That was just — I mean, that was just great luck to find those two elements together where I could complete that story.
Alex: What do you hope people will take away from the photographs in Wind Army?
Jay: One thing I experienced at reviews, particularly with younger curators, was that they’re only understanding of War of the Worlds came from the more modern Steven Spielberg movie. No one had an appreciation of how important this story was to literature. And oftentimes they weren’t even aware of the radio show and what happened with it.
The more I research War of the Worlds, the more impressed I was with the sheer importance of it, both as a piece of literature and as a shape changer in media. So ultimately I see it as an educational tool, to make people aware of the story and its legacy throughout media for over a century now.
Alex: You certainly could point to War of the Worlds as the birth of a very significant genre within science fiction, which is basically alien invasion—the idea that there are other intelligences out there. It really is one of those foundational stories: There was nothing quite like it before, and it sort of changed everything after it.