Tucson Photographer

Moon Collection

Tucson, Arizona could be the cosmic bellybutton of scientific (and quasi-scientific) super-structures. Its dry climate, cheap, abundant land and research-based University has fostered such structures as the Biosphere 2, the Vatican’s only Observatory outside of Italy, the worlds most advanced mirror lab, and most curiously, the Interstellar Light Collector.

The Collector is a parabolic array of 84 mirrors arranged to focus the light of the heavens onto a person so they can absorb the supposedly therapeutic rays.

In December of 2009 I spent several nights at the Interstellar Light Application’s mirrors. The following photographs tell the story of the people who hope that a little starlight can cure us all.

The mirror array is 23 miles outside of Tucson, just a few miles from the Tohono O’odham Reservation and at the bottom of a man-made crater of discarded sand from the construction of Ajo Road. The pit reduces the impact of winds and keeps any interlopers from seeing it from the highway. You can, however, see it in this Google Map.

The operators are like 21st century Stonehenge druids. They have used the latest technology of their age to construct a device to interface with the cosmos.

Participants climb into a small trailer that is wheeled around the outer ring as the moon tracks across the sky. A large mirror behind them reflects any stray light onto their back. I was struck by the similarity of this trailer to those trailers that old west snake oil hucksters would cart their wares in.

The ILC team was kind enough to give me a complimentary 3 minute exposure. I was paired up with a paying customer. “I am going to take off my shirt” my booth-mate told me as we stepped into position. “Well down to my bra.” It made sense. She was paying $25 to stand for 3 minutes in concentrated moonlight – might as well make sure nothing is getting between you and it. I cracked my shirt open half way. I made awkward small talk I usually reserved for my barber. My booth-mate was similarly new to this; she was dragged here by a friend.

The light is bright, but doesn’t make your eyes squint like sunlight. Instead it feels as if you are looking at the sun from underwater. The irregularly shaped mirrors glimmer like aluminum foil. It was really quiet up there. And strange. I can’t say I felt anything mystical. The dominant feeling was that this entire complex is focusing down on me. I am center stage and face to face with the moon.

Interstellar Light Applications is a family business. The owner’s daughter operates a stand that deals in crystals that have been subjected to various intensities and types of cosmic light. Each crystal is labeled with the celestial object that it was exposed to: Vega, the moon, planets. All are available for purchase.

It was Christmas time and there was a sale.

On a busy night there can be quite a wait before your scheduled appointment. Luckily there are free refreshments (hot chocolate, cookies, and grapes) along with chairs arranged around space heaters. Patrons are friendly and often freely describe their ailments or the restorative experiences they have had with previous exposures.

This photo is of a man describing the injuries he sustained from a motorcycle accident.

You might be tempted to dismiss Interstellar Light Applications as just a bunch of space-worshiping hippies. This is conclusion is a misguided confusion of two different American subcultures. The patrons of the ILA are more closely allied with science-based new-age healers, not groovy hippies looking for a trip.

This distinction became all the more obvious when a couple of actual, and quite stoned, hippies stumbled on-site from the adjacent commune. The personality clash was palpable. These pack of ragamuffins wandered through the place like the Marx brothers. They regularly jumped into the booth (pictured), ran up to the mirror and haggled the operators.

The operators frequently told them to put out their cigarettes because many guests have caner or respiratory problems. One such hippy was clutching a glass jug that contained what said was Ice Tea. Based on how protectively he was clutching it I knew it had to be something more potent.

If you were to place the ILA team on a spiritual spectrum, they would fall somewhere between the harmonic-convergence-new-agism of Sedona and the integrated alternative healing philosophies of Andrew Weil.

Several times a night there is a speech to describe the purpose and benefits. Here the inventor’s wife describes their theories about why Moonlight would be therapeutic. The facts are arbitrary but the explanations are logical. As is explained, with modern progress our nights are filled more with artificial light and less of the natural light we evolved with. A few of the ILC’s supporters stand up and describe their conditions before moonlight and their health after. They list how much less medication they are taking and how much better their moods are.

They lost me though with the claims that a little bit of sun-light reflected off a giant rock, reflected off a mirror could reduce caner, asthma, anxiety and eyesight.

I was surprised by how low pressure the pitch was. No one was locked in the tent until they purchased some moon time. There were no long term commitment plans. Cellphone plans are more restrictive.

Similarly, several times she backed off on the most glorious claims and said, “we mention asthma, depression, eyesight, but lets not go crazy, this isn’t a cure-all.”

I first visited the mirror at sundown. The engineer was greasing up the main motor and was blasting progressive rock as he worked. The soundtrack, coupled with the sand that turns bright red at dusk, made me feel like I was in a research station on Mars.

Scheduling time in front of the mirror is not unlike making restaurant reservations. There is a desk you call and schedule your minutes.

People often congregate here before and after their time in front of the collector. In this photo, a participant who received 15 minutes of exposure explains some peculiarities he saw in the light. The inventor’s wife smiles warmly and is truly happy to see he enjoyed his time.

I didn’t go to the Interstellar Light Collector to alleviate my skepticism. It was never my intention. I was drawn, instead, by my interest in spectacle and appreciation of solid engineering. To that regard, I was satisfied with what I found there.

Visiting the site for me was like visiting a beautiful cathedral. I do not believe in what the people do there, but it sure is inspiring to look at.

What I was surprised by was the people. This place is not operated by hucksters. This is a family business. And the people who run it are genuine and truly believe that this is a way for people to feel better and if they are lucky, get better.

As I said goodbye to the people who had let me photograph them, the inventor’s wife held my hand and looked in my eye and said, “The moonlight has really changed you. I can tell.” That genuinely made me feel better.