Photographing the Unseen

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Gallery Acquires 1,500+ Images of Utah’s Eerie Skinwalker Ranch

In Utah’s Uinta Basin, among the red mesas and wide-open stretches of land, unusual happenings have been part of the local fabric for years—maybe even centuries. Large wolf-like creatures seemingly impervious to gunshots. Noises with no apparent source. Reports of unidentified flying objects.

Now, the University of Maryland Art Gallery is offering a glimpse of the area’s mysterious Skinwalker Ranch, thanks to a donation of more than 1,500 images from photographer Christopher Bartel, a security officer there from 2010 to 2016.

An online exhibition is planned for early 2021.

Located on land once claimed by both the Navajo and Ute people that’s now part of the Ute Uintah and Ouray Reservation, the roughly 500-acre ranch takes its name from the English translation of the Navajo word for a shapeshifting entity.

The ranch has reportedly been home to government-funded research projects on unidentified flying objects and other not-easily-explained phenomena. Films, cable TV shows and news articles have told stories of cattle mutilations, crop circles, strange lights and more.

Bartel’s photographs are valuable not just because of the ranch’s flirtations with the paranormal, says Taras Matla, associate director of the gallery. They recall a tradition of photography of the American West pioneered by artists like Ansel Adams, Carleton Watkins and William Henry Jackson.

These photographers brought viewers to places like Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks, showing them cliffs, geysers and valleys that they likely never would have seen otherwise, much like Bartel’s images of inaccessible landscapes.

Taken a century or so after some of the most iconic images of the vast West, Bartel’s photographs “help us connect the dots in terms of environment, ecology and cultural history,” Matla says.


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Winter 2021 Campus Life