UFOs are Art: Artist Ionel Talpazan Dies at Age 60

Talpazan,

Talpazan, “UFO Diagram” (2013)

The New York Times recently featured an obituary for Romanian-born artist Ionel Talpazan, who died last month. As the newspapers notes:

Mr. Talpazan claimed that one night in the Romanian countryside, when he was 8, a strange, hovering shape slowly descended from the sky, enveloping him in a celestial blue light, and then disappeared. The experience haunted him and became the source of his art.

His paintings, drawings and sculptures dealt, obsessively, with U.F.O.s and their inner workings, often shown in cross section and heavily annotated in Romanian.

UFOs are Art: James Rigberg’s Flying Saucer News

Cover of Flying Saucers News from 1956 (courtesy of the Archives for the Unexplained)

Cover of Flying Saucers News from 1956 (courtesy of the Archives for the Unexplained)

UFO sightings have inspired not only stories. They also have stirred witnesses and UFO researchers to try to capture the experience in imagery. Drawings, paintings, sketches, photographs, and films have all been used as a way to try to better communicate to others the perceived reality of unidentified flying objects and their crews.

The cover pictured here is from the American magazine Flying Saucer News. First appearing in March 1955, it was published in New York City by James S. Rigberg. Rigberg was the head of the Flying Saucer News Club and ran a bookstore on Third Avenue in New York City for years, specializing in paranormal and new age books and magazines. Rigberg apparently moved the shop at some point to West 45th Street in New York.

James Rigberg (in sweater and tie to the right) in his bookstore, featured in an article in the Saturday Evening Post in 1956. Image from John Kobler,

James Rigberg (in sweater and tie to the right) in his bookstore, featured in an article in the Saturday Evening Post in 1956. Image from John Kobler, “He Runs Flying-Saucer Headquarters,” Saturday Evening Post, 10 March 1956.

Blogger Richard Aguilar recalls visiting the shop in the mid-1970s as an eager, young ufologist:

The store was about the size of a shoebox bodega on the street level of a five-story apartment building at 359 West 45th Street. The window display was a low-budget DIY affair—maybe a pie tin spacecraft hanging by a thread and some books. Inside, running along the two longer walls, you would find steel bookcases crammed with UFO, metaphysical, and self-improvement books and magazines. More books were neatly displayed on a table in the center. The space was so tight and the aisles so narrow, that it could only comfortably accommodate about three customers at a time. Usually I would have the entire store to myself.

The do-it-yourself ethos described by Augilar is something that has characterized the vast majority of those historically involved in the UFO and alien contact movements.

The graphic design here follows a modernist style characteristic of some in the 1950s, with crisp lines and geometric shapes. In the foreground is an image of a flying saucer. But this is not just any flying saucer. It is clearly supposed to be an example of the flying saucer claimed to have been encountered by George Adamski, easily the most famous – and influential – of those claiming to have made direct contact with extraterrestrials (“contactees”) in the 1950s.

Photograph Adamski supposedly took of a flying saucer he encountered in the mid-1940s.. From: http://ovni007.tripod.com/id83.html

Photograph Adamski supposedly took of a flying saucer he encountered in the early 1950s. From: http://ovni007.tripod.com/id83.html

This Day in UFO History: The Incident at Exeter

An article on the Exeter sightings in True magazine (1967).

An article on the Exeter sightings in True magazine (1967).

On this day in 1965, witnesses around the town of Exeter, New Hampshire (USA) reported seeing a large, silent, and glowing object in the late-night skies overhead. To be sure, reports like these occurred with some regularity at the time. But what made this flap different was the fact that two local police officers also claimed to have witnessed the strange object. And reports of sightings for several weeks later only added to the mystery.

The story of that night was covered several months later in an article in Look magazine and some time later in the magazine True. But it was the 1966 book by John G. Fuller (Incident at Exeter) that helped turn the event into a canonical part of UFO lore.

In 2011, UFO skeptics James McGaha and Joe Nickell put forward what they consider to be a definitive explanation for the original sightings: a U.S. Air Force KC-97 plane in the act of refueling another aircraft.

A U.S. Air Force KC-97. From: James McGaha and Joe Nickell, "‘Exeter Incident’ Solved! A Classic UFO Case, Forty-Five Years ‘Cold,"’ Skeptical Inquirer, 35 (November/December 2011).

A U.S. Air Force KC-97. From: James McGaha and Joe Nickell, “‘Exeter Incident’ Solved! A Classic UFO Case, Forty-Five Years ‘Cold,”’ Skeptical Inquirer, 35 (November/December 2011).

For some additional photos and follow-up materials regarding the case, follow this link to UFO Evidence.

Why “Flying Saucers?”

This parabola-shaped flying wing was developed by German designers Reimar and Walter Horten during the Third Reich. U.S. authorities after the war proved very interested in discovering the technology behind it. From: http://www.educatinghumanity.com/2011/06/ufos-ufo-news-ufo-video-ufos-that-are.html

This parabola-shaped flying wing was developed by German designers Reimar and Walter Horten during the Third Reich. U.S. authorities after the war proved very interested in discovering the technology behind it.
From: http://www.educatinghumanity.com/2011/06/ufos-ufo-news-ufo-video-ufos-that-are.html

When people learn of my interest in the history of UFOs and aliens, I am often asked, “Why flying saucers?” What they generally mean by this is, why did the image of extraterrestrial spacecraft take the shape of “flying saucers?” Why not something else?

The question of “why” is always a tricky one for us historians. Answering it always depends on what kind of explanation you’re looking for. So it actually can be a pretty imprecise way of posing a question. That is why most historians tend to prefer to pose questions in terms of “how” rather than “why.” So, then, how exactly did the image of “flying saucers” come about?

Of course, those who have believed that flying saucers do in fact exist in reality have a ready-made explanation – that’s how they were designed by their makers, they would say. Now, some witnesses and believers have contended that aliens civilizations are behind these vehicles, but many others have been of the view that the flying objects are terrestrial in origin, the creation of secret government programs. In either event, both groups believe one must look to aeronautics to explain the design.

If, however, we adopt what could be called an ethnographic approach to the question – this would insist that the researcher adopts a sympathetic, but critical, distance between herself and those she studies – then it’s possible to break the original question down into several.

First, have witnesses in fact reported only or primarily seeing “flying saucers?” It turns out that that assumption is false. As discussed in the previous blog entry on the Ghost Rocket Scare of 1946, most people in Sweden at the time actually reported seeing rockets and missiles. And during the early years of sightings in the late forties, some also described seeing cigar-shaped objects, while others claimed to have seen lit or colored balls. The UFO typology chart below, developed in 1967, shows some of the range of what witnesses reported seeing by then. So, while “flying saucers” have historically predominated among witness reports, other kinds of flying objects have also been reported.

The next questions then are, when and how did the term “flying saucer” start being used? As I have explained in a recent article (and based on the research of journalist and folklorist David Clarke), in June 1947, a private pilot by the name of Kenneth Arnold was flying over Washington state in the U.S. when, as he recounted, he saw what looked like nine odd-shaped aircraft flying in formation at around 10,000 feet. Arnold described them as “flat like a pie pan and somewhat bat-shaped” (artistic renditions he later endorsed look very similar to the Horten brothers’ aircraft). Interviewed by the press soon afterward, he explained that the objects “flew like a saucer would if you skipped it across water.” Though never uttering the phrase “flying saucers,” newspapers throughout the world rapidly adopted the term, and a Gallup poll published a few weeks after Arnold’s encounter revealed that nine out of ten Americans were already familiar with the term. Within months, then, the expressions “flying saucer” and “flying disk” had become not only ubiquitous, but synonymous with sightings of unusual aircraft.

Kenneth Arnold with a artist's rendition of what he saw. From: http://thepandorasociety.com/june-24th-1947-flying-saucers-over-washington/

Kenneth Arnold with an artist’s rendition of what he saw. From: http://thepandorasociety.com/june-24th-1947-flying-saucers-over-washington/

So the moniker “flying saucer” was the invention of journalists – albeit based on the description of a witness – and circulated rapidly within the media as as economical term that neatly fit the limits of a headline banner. This does not mean, of course, that witnesses have in fact not seen disk-like objects in the skies. It does mean, however, that widespread exposure of the world public to the repeated use of the term and image of “flying saucers” provided what sociologists refer to as a “frame” for everyone after Kenneth Arnold. According to sociologists (1) frames serve three major functions:
• they put brackets around phenomena, making them less messy, less open to a multitude of interpretations
• they tie together various elements of experiences into a more unified and coherent story than would otherwise be the case
• and thus, they rearrange and transform the ways in which objects or experiences are understood in relation to individuals.
“Flying saucer” therefore was not just simply a convenient term without any wider social significance. It also carried with it a number of other associations – for example, UFOs = an uncanny experience, must be the product of advanced technology, raise the possibility of alien visitation. And so it’s not just that a term was circulating in the press and in personal conversations, but that a set of emotions, ideas, and stories were also being encouraged along the way.

Notes

1. Snow, David A. “Frame.” Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Ritzer, George (ed). Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Blackwell Reference Online. 23 August 2015 http://www.blackwellreference.com/subscriber/tocnode.html?id=g9781405124331_chunk_g978140512433112_ss1-64

The Ghost Rocket Scare of 1946 and a Famous Photograph

Photograph taken by Erik Reuterswärd in June 1946. From: http://www.ufo.se/english/articles/ghostrocket.html

Photograph taken by Erik Reuterswärd in June 1946. From: http://www.ufo.se/english/articles/ghostrocket.html

Let’s start off where it all pretty much began: the summer of 1946. In May of that year, two separate motorists in southern Sweden reported to police there that they had seen a long rocket- or zeppelin-like object in the skies overhead. They could not agree on whether the object had wings or not, but one witness claimed to have tracked the object with his family for some five minutes.

Subsequent sightings of shooting stars drew the attention of local journalists, who were told by some witnesses that they were reminiscent of the kinds of “flying bombs” they had seen during World War II (here they were referring to a number of V-1 and V-2 rockets launched from Nazi Germany that had landed on Swedish territory). At first, the media referred to the objects as “rocket bombs,” but then in late May the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet dubbed them “ghost rockets” and the name has stuck ever since.

During the summer of 1946, Swedish Defense Staff registered at least a thousand reports of ghost rocket sightings, with likely many more going unreported. While there was a relatively steady stream of reports coming in, a flurry of sightings were made on 9th and 10th of June, helping to spark a great deal of concern within both the Swedish general public and the British and American military intelligence communities.

It was at this time that a photograph (see the one above) was taken by a Swedish man by the name of Erik Reuterswärd, who was on vacation with his wife at Guldsmedshyttan in the southern part of the country. Reuterswärd was snapping photos when he and his wife caught site of a daytime meteor. He took some more pictures, and it was only on getting his film developed that he found he had successfully captured the meteor on film.

Media outlets in Sweden and abroad eventually used Reuterswärd’s photo in publicizing news about ghost rockets sightings. These outlets, however, generally cropped his photo (see below) and dubbed it an image of an actual ghost rocket. It is an interesting example, then, of the ways in which the mass media has played a decisive in shaping public perceptions of unidentified flying objects.

Cropped photograph widely distributed by the media. From: http://www.ufo.se/english/articles/ghostrocket.html

Cropped photograph widely distributed by the media. From: http://www.ufo.se/english/articles/ghostrocket.html

For the full story on Erik Reuterswärd and his famous photograph, see this interesting piece by Swedish journalist and ufologist Clas Svahn. Svahn remains one of the leading experts on the history of the ghost rocket scare. He and several colleagues have recently released a documentary film on the ghost rocket phenomenon. You can see a trailer and more information about the film here.