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Searching for the Mystery Lights of Marfa, Texas

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Tumbleweed rolling down N. Highland Ave, Marfa. The building in the far left is the historic Hotel Paisano, featured in the classic film Giant with James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. (All Photos: Peter Ash Lee)

This photo essay is one of a five-part series with Atlas Obscura and Olympus. We asked some of our favorite photographers to take a quest with an Olympus E-M5 Mark II camera, and these are the results of their adventures. All photographs in this story were taken with an Olympus E-M5 Mark II with a 12-40mm Pro lens. To see the full series, go here.

The town of Marfa, situated in the high desert of West Texas, has a population of just 1,981. It is difficult to get to—the closest airport is three hours away—and yet, despite its small size and relative in accessibility, it has become famous for minimalist art, and the mysterious Marfa lights.

The art scene began in the early 1970s, when artist Donald Judd moved to Marfa. He bought properties for his installations and collections, and Marfa is now home to the Judd Foundation and the Chinati Foundation, along with numerous other galleries. The heritage of the Marfa lights dates back further; under local lore, it was a cowboy in 1883 who first spoke of seeing the lights as he herded his cattle across the plains. They are described as either stationary or mobile bright lights seen in the desert, which may “pulse on and off with intensity varying from a dim to an almost blinding brilliance.” Witnesses to the lights often attribute them to paranormal activity such as UFOs and ghosts.  

With this in mind, it’s no surprise that photographer Peter Ash Lee wanted to visit Marfa. He was intrigued by its history and culture, and hoped that maybe he could also chase down the elusive Marfa lights. In late November, Lee made his way to Marfa from New York via two flights and a drive, to photograph this isolated and most unique town. 

 

A classic Valiant with Texas license plates parked in Marfa.

In this sign for Marfa, the beautiful font, and the shadows it created, caught Lee’s eye. 

Lee drove out of the town’s borders on Pinto Canyon Road, which led to beautiful rolling hills—apparently the same countryside as featured in the film No Country for Old Men.

Prada Marfa, a permanent sculpture by artists Elmgreen and Dragset. “Right after this photo was taken, two other tourists ran in to pose in front of it wearing nothing but their cowboy hats,” Lee says.

The train tracks across the street from the Prada Marfa exhibition.

A sculpture spotted by Lee as he walked around the town. 

A mural painted outside the Thunderbird Hotel office.

One of many beautiful vegetations growing in the desert.

Lee visited the Marfa Lights Viewing Center, and watched the sunset—and waited for the mysterious Marfa lights. 

Local flora silhouetted against the setting sun. 

An alien-like face is formed from the binoculars at the Marfa Lights Viewing Center.

The Marfa Lights? At the Viewing Center, Lee was told that the white light above the red light is indeed one of the Marfa Lights, and he managed to capture it on film. “It would appear randomly every few minutes and change and then slowly fade away,” Lee recalls, “One of the other viewers told us that it was probably a reflection off a headlight from a nearby highway. No one seemed to really know what was and wasn’t part of the Marfa Lights.”