From the Lewis and Clark Expedition to the Hayden Geological Survey of 1871, artists have played a central role in survey and intelligence work documenting the American West.
In addition, the rise of photography in the middle of the nineteenth century, as a means for both research gathering and individual artistic expression, significantly influenced and ushered in an era of credible data-collecting landscape for decades to come. Of note is photographer William Henry Jackson (1843–1942), who, aside from being part of the Hayden survey, set out on horseback with a small group of explorers in 1873 to locate and photograph the Mount of the Holy Cross.
At that time, rumors and myths circulated about a natural landmark made of snow on the side of a mountain, said to be in the form of an enormous Christian cross and possibly of divine origin. But the story lacked serious credibility due to a lack of sufficient proof of its existence—until Jackson ultimately located and photographed it. Jackson was the first to visually record this natural phenomenon with his camera, effectively correcting the record by turning lore into accepted fact.
In 2010, Christopher Bartel was hired by Bigelow Aerospace Advanced Space Studies (BAASS), LLC, a subsidiary of Bigelow Aerospace (BA), as part of a team to protect and secure Skinwalker Ranch assets. The ranch’s owner was also founder and president of BA, Robert T. Bigelow. At the time, Bartel was unaware that BAASS had secured a government contract from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA)—two programs operated at this time, the Advanced Aerospace Weapon System Applications Program and the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program—to investigate topics related to Unidentified Flying Objects and other unexplained phenomena at the ranch and elsewhere. Bartel often carried his camera with him while on patrol, thinking it would come in handy if he came across something that he felt needed to be documented more professionally.
While at the ranch, Bartel pushed his curiosity and sense of adventure to its limits. Past personal, military, and professional experiences led him to develop a mature artistic style while at Skinwalker Ranch and, ultimately, led him to amass a digital archive of over 1,500 images documenting his time spent there. In addition, Bartel ties together important themes related to the ranch’s natural surroundings, ecology, and cultural history. Another interesting feature involves his relationship with the ranch dogs. Daily explorations were more often than not solitary activities. As such, the dogs became invaluable resources because they were trained observers in their own right. They were used as biosensors in order to pre-cognitively sense and detect the presence of hard-to-document occurrences that may be more difficult to pick up with human instincts and intuitions. Bartel’s images of the ranch dogs present the dogs not only as investigative tools, but also as trusted colleagues and reliable friends in search of the unexplained.