My American Dream: City of Angels
First Daylight Photo of UFOs: Salem Mass US Coast Guard Station, July 16, 1952, 2023 Oil on linen 48 × 68 in. (121.92 × 172.72 cm)
First Daylight Photo of UFOs: Salem Mass US Coast Guard Station, July 16, 1952, 2023
Oil on linen 48 × 68 in. (121.92 × 172.72 cm)

This is (from the Library of Congress that owns and has archived the photo in their collection) Photo by Shell R. Alpert, a United States Coast Guard photographer at the Salem, Mass., air station at 9:35 A.M. on July 16, 1952, through a window screen.  The 21-year-old US Coast Guard photographer saw four mysterious lights floating outside his photo lab window, and as he noticed the lights were dimming, went outside to call his colleague, then ran back inside to grab his camera, which he had been cleaning and shot this now famous image from the photo lab window.  It is an official US Coast Guard photo, #5554.

Alpert described the sighting by stating, “I was sitting in the photo office filing negatives with my back toward the window when I turned slightly in the direction of the window and noticed something bright outside. I observed the sky and saw what appeared to be several bright, almost brilliant lights slightly on the starboard side of the power plant smokestacks. “

The photo made it in many newspapers and went all the way from the Coast Guard to the Pentagon and was in the briefcase of General John A Samford’s 1952 flying saucer press conference, where he tried to debunk the phenomena as it was causing so much stir, just a couple of weeks later.   Project Blue Book the official government organization set to task with finding out more this in their investigating UFO sightings (and also to debunk them, according to many and Dr. J Allen Hynek, the leader of the project and then whistle blower and respected UFO advocate), in their investigation of this sighting, tried to claim it was reflections in the window of interior lights—but there were no lights—and also setting up strings of lights above cars in the parking lot seen in the image just to see if it was a set up prank to no avail  (interesting to read the declassified Blue Book documents here). This remains one of the best, and most famous of all UFO photos and helped to create the wave and popularity of UFOs in the world.

I feel as in age post Gerhard Richter, my job working from photos is to try to penetrate the photo, rather than just acknowledge the surface (or flatness, in case of Warhol), much like in the beginnings when photography was used as a source, such as in the days of Bonnard and Vuillard.   Former Whitney Museum Director said to me I was a “history painter” (my 9-11 painting, of course with much more gravitas but not dissimilar to the composition of this image is part of their collection and was featured in their inaugural downtown show), and I think the job of a history painting is to make alive the feeling and world of the event that has transpired, to give people the warmth and emotion of what it must have been like to witness the event, in addition making them care and critically think about that moment in time  what happened.  For this, I found on Google Earth the exact location off the coast of Maine of the (now old and abandoned) station, to get a feeling of the color of the atmosphere and time, in addition to researching the colors of cars in that era, and more.

While painting, I listened to J. Allen Hynek’s historic book The UFO Experience: Evidence Behind Close Encounters, Project Blue Book, and the Search for Answers in addition to music that conjured for me the feelings and emotions of wonder for the scene, notably Brian Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks (his soundtrack for the Apollo mission documentary For All Mankind), in addition to other Eno later ambient works, Phillip Glass symphonies and his soundtracks for Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi and his operas, especially Einstein on the Beach and Akhnaten (which I love now as much as when I was a kid).  The minimalist aesthetic to this music seemed on point, as I found the essential compositional track for this was the lines of the screen, apparent in the high res image I obtained from online, where I could see this in the foreground (along with the pull from window blinds and the silhouette of the window!) looking through at the phenomena that was occurring outside, like Dorthy looking through the window of her home at the flying witch during that sequence in the Wizard of Oz.  I tried to look at the details of the glowing lights as much as I could as I painted them, with cremnitz white at the end (that has lead in it and makes it have a tactile, piled up texture), thinking too of one of my favorite Fra Angelico paintings, that of Christ, in front of what looks almost like a UFO in his visionary triptych painting of the Last Judgement ca. 1435-40 at the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin (a painting that I’ve studied and drawn in person!).

The agnostic thing to say about UFO’s is that they exist, we just don’t know literally what they are or where they came from.  They notoriously have been seen since WWII around military bases and have been known to shut off nuclear warhead operations and seem distinctly involved and interested in our military weapons of mass destruction and operations.  Then and now the military stresses that they don’t seem like a threat to mankind, but with the power they have, who knows?  The exciting time of our moment, is that finally, nearly 80 years since the first contemporary sightings (and they have been talked about, written about, and painted since biblical times!), the government has finally acknowledged their existence—and projects that we don’t know what they are or where they come from or what to do about them (although there are hundreds of conspiracy theories about all this).  We are finding out more during official congressional hearings, and from other nations that have acknowledged their existence for decades, and there is hope for “full disclosure” in our near future.  For now, we can only wonder and contemplate—and this is one of the images that helped the visionary world and wonder about UFO’s (or UAP’s as they are now called—Unidentified Aerial Phenomena to avoid the baggage of the results of the demonization of UFO’s and their fringe believers of the bast) and why they are here….