Photographer Dustin Snipes reinterprets magical Marfa Lights

Californian captures unidentified Flying Air Force above vast Texan landscape.

The unexplainable visual phenomenon known as the Marfa Lights have entranced people in the night sky above Texas for 137 years with acclaimed American photographer Dustin Snipes reinterpreting the marvel with the help of the Red Bull Air Force.

Some people believe they are spirits of fallen warriors or paranormal phenomena like ghosts, UFOs and will-o’-the-wisp, while scientists see them as either natural gases emitted from the earth’s core or atmospheric reflections of vehicle headlights and campfires.

Whatever way you look at them, the orbs of light that seemingly float just above the horizon of the remote city of Marfa are breathtaking which is why Snipes wanted to capture his own take during a New Moon pitch black night illuminated by the glowing Milky Way galaxy.

The lack of light pollution ensures the night sky is vast and oceanic with Snipes recruiting the Red Bull Air Force to dive in unison like falling comets through the night.

Here is what the Californian and Red Bull Air Force captain Jon DeVore had to say about this unique project:

What were the major challenges for you two on a mission like this?

Snipes: There were a lot of options. We could have created these lighting conditions a bunch of different ways. So at the end of it, we had to decide what was the most important element for us to capture. I think having a very clear, beautiful night sky was on the top of the list. Looking at it from the perspective of, ‘Do we want this to look like people, or do we want them to look like look like something else?’ – it really questions what you’re looking at. Trying to reverse engineer how we were going to get that look was definitely the most difficult because it’s something I’ve never shot before. Knowing who the Red Bull Air Force were, and what they could do under these conditions also played a part in it. There were a lot of unknowns, but every time the Red Bull Air Force and Jon and I had talked to each other, I felt more and more comfortable.

DeVore: Typically, when we do night jumps, we can spot the ground pretty well because we’re either doing a show over a city where there’s at least some identifiable locations on the ground. This location literally was blackout dark on the ground. We drove two pickup trucks to our landing area and put headlights on, which yes, when you’re standing on the ground, that that looks like enough light. But when you’re 10,000 feet in the air looking down, they look like tiny little dots of light. At least during our first jump, that was a little difficult to distinguish. That was the first challenge for sure. Secondly, it’s really challenging to communicate with a guy once you exit the aircraft. Sure, we have some lights on us and we’ve learned throughout the years how to spot each other pretty well, but to get together under canopy or in freefall, it just takes a lot more of a coordinated effort to be able to get together because there are less visuals. Thirdly, would be trying to understand Dustin’s vision from an artist’s point of view and how we could choreograph our dives to best suit his dream or what he was trying to capture, combined with what we were trying to do performance-wise. So, it definitely wasn’t an easy one, but it all came together.

Jon, what’s happening mid-jump or what’s that feel like while you’re doing manoeuvres like this?

DeVore: In this type of a project, you’re looking outside, it’s loud, it’s noisy, it’s windy, and in this instance, it was also cold. Then you look out and your adrenaline starts to get going because especially on this one, you’re looking down, and you see two little dots of light you’re believing are your trucks. Now, you can’t mess this spot up. There’s no other visual reference on the ground before you exit, you can’t see anything else other than those two dots. Initially, that beginning is the most important part. When you exit, there’s a lot that comes through muscle memory because all of us on the team have around 21,000 jumps. We’ve been doing it a long time and have a lot of air time. Then you’re actioning out, jumping out of the plane. You look back up as everybody else is actioning out, you see everybody’s pyro firing. At least my point of view, I get excited or happy at that point. I realize the dive is working where everyone’s pyro fired, there’s no malfunctions. Everyone is in the formation that we had discussed and spreading apart like a starburst in the sky. That initial freefall and choreography is definitely muscle memory. But once you start to track away from everyone and you’re on your own while you’re deploying your parachute, that’s when everything gets surreal. You pull your parachute, everything slows down, the parachute stops you to pretty much a halting speed. Then, everything’s quiet. You can start to really calm down and look around and realise what it feels like up there in outer space. And then you have to start looking around and scanning where you’re picking up your teammates. That’s an intense moment because you can run each other over, and that’d be horrible. Then obviously, things go well, you get together, and then it’s back into muscle memory mode where we’re all human pilots flying our parachutes – our bodies – and we get together. When you see it all working like clockwork, the nerves calm down and excitement picks up and you’re just excited that you’re pulling it off. And then the real deal comes where you’re landing. Especially in this environment, just having little headlights from a truck lighting the ground. That’s a depth perception mental trip because the ground’s coming up real fast. Obviously on parachutes we have no motors, so we’re landing with engines out basically. Coming in on approach and landing and making sure you’re setting a good path for your teammates to follow is super important. It’s intense from top to bottom.

What did that look like from the ground, Dustin?

Snipes: Yeah, I’d been checking all my cameras, making sure everything was in focus, making sure nothing had moved. We had two cameras set up to a computer that were showing live views so we could see a better outcome of what it would look like right away. Then we had six more down below shooting a really wide angle, something that we could show more stars and resolution. Those were also wired together so they’d trigger at the same time from one button. While I was doing that, I was looking through another camera and triggering every 25 seconds for the actual array shot. Then, while I was shooting, we set up a script to shoot two cameras off to the left with a slightly different angle and focus. Basically, I was triggering nine cameras at once, just to get slight variations of the shots or to get variations with a specific astro camera. We had two that were just for astrophotography and they read more of the reds and other colours that we can’t necessarily see or that cameras can’t necessarily. There was a lot going on. A lot of this was about preparation and to get that final shot. We prepared to have different outcomes, and again, you have to make sure that you’re exposing for that night sky Milky Way, and also trying to get the light in at the same time without making one more dominant than the other.

Did you have to do a lot of research or have some knowledge of the stars beforehand?

Snipes: Yeah, we reached out to a lot of experts, including The Dark-Sky Association and spoke to a wonderfully knowledgeable person, Bettymaya Foott, who helped out immensely in terms of explaining how the stars move and how the Milky Way will appear in the sky, what are the best times to shoot, and filled in some gaps that you wouldn’t necessarily know just being a non-astrological photographer. I’m happy to take the knowledge of an expert any day to help me out with something that’s as cool as this collaborative effort.

DeVore: From my point of view, we didn’t necessarily have to do too much research as an athlete group. It was pretty straight forward that we were looking for the darkest pitch-black sky we could find. The thing that we really had to try to comprehend and understand was what was going to translate better when it came to how we lit ourselves up. But, it didn’t really have too much to do with understanding the night sky.

Jon, how dangerous were the pyrotechnics shooting out of your suits?

DeVore: Yeah. We’ve used pyro for quite a long time on the demo team. It’s been something that has proven itself successful. Most people don’t know what it’s going to look like, but in the end, it really shows the speed and energy that we’re travelling up there. It truly is like we’re human comets. Once people see that and see the energy coming off of it, it’s usually the showstopper. But it comes with its dangers as well. It is a pyrotechnic and it can be explosive at times if dealt with wrong. We’ve had a few things happen, but no serious injuries. I had one that was a dud years ago at EDC in Vegas. One of my pyros didn’t go off. So, when I landed, I took my bracket off my foot and I was trying to hit the igniter button and it went off. I thought I blew my fingers off my hand for a second, but it was just some burns. That’s probably the worst story we have from them. In general, they’re pretty safe and really cool to use. It puts on an amazing show.

Was this jump a particularly hard one for you guys?

DeVore: Yeah, it was the darkest. It was definitely a challenging one, and hands down the most challenging part was that trying to work with anything on the ground, from spotting our jump to staying on track while we’re in freefall and under canopy flight, making sure that we don’t fly away from those two little dots of light because everything else was surrounded by hills…then pure darkness. It would have ended quite bad if we didn’t make our landing area.

From the photos, you looked like comets falling from the sky. Was that part of the concept, Dustin?

Snipes: It definitely was. The whole thing about the Marfa Lights is that it’s mysterious. Some people have ideas about what it is, but not a lot of people know what it is. It’s kind of an urban legend, or myth, and a lot of people think it’s UFOs or, gas phenomenon coming from the earth. But I wanted it to look like meteors or a comet or something raining down from the sky. Maybe like a UFO. I just wanted somebody’s mind to wander a little bit and wonder what that was. At the end of the day, even if the picture is still a mystery, it’s a really cool story once you dive in. Again, it’s more of an interpretation of the Marfa Lights through The Red Bull Air Force and the city of Marfa, on one of the clearest night skies you can find in the country, maybe the world. So, it’s just a great opportunity to create such a different thing and such an abstract idea. To recreate like, an urban legend or unsolved mystery type thing.

What’s your theory on the Marfa Lights?

DeVore: (laughs) UFOs, for sure. Everybody knows that.

Snipes: Everyone loves a good UFO story. I think that’s why I thought this was so fun, because there’s so many people who want to believe in this type of stuff. Who are we to deny them of that? Why not help out in their joy by creating our own unidentified flying objects? But we went out and we did look at the Lights a little bit. We went out to one of the main observation areas where you would normally see them. I will say, I have watched a few theories of videos online, but I think they’re still a mystery.