Untitled (Reaper Drone) by Trevor Paglen

In his first domestic solo exhibition since winning a SECA award in 2009 (on view at Altman Siegel Gallery through April 2, 2011), Bay Area photographer Trevor Paglen ups the aesthetic ante while maintaining his edge. Paglen is known for documenting secret military and intelligence surveillance operations; he is interested in how machines that “see,” be they cameras, drones, or satellites, impact our world and how we move through it. This show is no different and so shares with previous work a sense of intrigue. We get to spy on things that are supposed to be hidden. These new works also feature a more developed poetic beauty.

A group of three large-format (two 48 x 60 inches, the other 60 x 48 inches) untitled photographs featuring a Reaper Drone against a huge sky are reminiscent of Rothko color-field paintings. They are luminous and subtle, the drone almost lost in the vast skyscape.

Also taking on a painterly quality is the glowing image, They Watch the Moon, and the whiteish-orange-red blurry abstraction The Fence. The former is a long-exposure image of a “listening station” in West Virginia taken on a night of the full moon; a glowing, golden city in a hazy green atmosphere. The Fence shows the radar system that surrounds the U.S., the frequencies having been brought into a visible spectrum.

An eight-image sequence of a Predator Drone flying, titled Time Study, is a nod to the motion images of Eadweard Muybridge. Paglen even goes so far as to develop his photos just as Muybridge did, using the albumen method, which gives them a yellowed, aged look. And like the images of his inspiration, Paglen’s explore ideas of vision, time, and place–a common theme throughout the show–capturing what we can’t see with the naked eye. But here things get a bit more serious; these are highly advanced systems for warfare.