60 years ago, on May 11, something extraordinary happened just ten miles outside the otherwise ordinary town of McMinnville, Oregon. A couple of down-to-Earth farmers — Paul and Evelyn Trent — took two photos of something out-of-this-world. Those images turned out to be possibly the most famous UFO photos ever taken, and certainly the ones that are considered to have the highest likelihood of being authentic. Without question, they remain the most hotly debated UFO or flying saucer photos ever. The nearness of the object and the fact that it was the first to be captured so clearly on film makes the case stand out even now. At the time, the pictures surpassed in quality and credibility anything taken in the first three years of the country's growing awareness of "flying saucers" (1947-1950).
This case resonates with me because 1950 was the year my family moved to Oregon. When the photos were taken by the Trents, the Zabels lived 51 miles away on the Oregon coast in a little town called Nelscott, now part of Lincoln City. Although I hadn't been born yet, I do remember later as a kid seeing the photos for the first time and thinking how incredible it was that they'd been taken so close to our part of the world.
To commemorate this 60th anniversary, we have created the magazine cover the case deserves but will never get.
What you're looking at to the right is not a real Time magazine, of course, because "real" journalists don't cover UFOs. They don't believe in them.
Try clicking on the image to blow it up to full-size. Then you can really appreciate what a radical act it would be for a major news magazine to put something like this on their cover.
And yet that should not be the case. Ask yourself: Why is it that a phenomenon that is this enduring — with thousands of excellent cases, radar confirmations, Air Force chases, pilot encounters, police reports, photographs, physical traces, etc. — can't be treated as something worthy of our attention and investigation? Read Richard Dolan's other post on this site about the Twelve Documents That Take UFOs Seriously. How many establishment journalists are even aware of them?
The fact that the mainstream media has completely shirked its responsibilities over the years on this issue is appalling. It is, quite simply, the Greatest Story Never Told.
Before this turns into a rant on media responsibility, something we will address in detail in our upcoming book, let's give this moment over to the famous Trent photos. Remember that by clicking on the photos that follow you can see them in a larger size than they first appear on this site.
The Story of the Photos
Between 7:30 pm and 7:45 pm on the night of May 11, just before sunset, Evelyn Trent was walking back to her farmhouse after feeding rabbits on her farm. She saw something flying in the sky. It wasn't a bird or a plane. It had shape without wings and mass far greater than any bird. It was, as it turns out, a "classic" flying saucer.
She described it later as a "slow-moving, metallic disk-shaped object heading in my direction from the northeast." The black-and-white photos apparently don't do it justice. Evelyn Trent continued in an interview, "It was like a good-sized parachute canopy without the strings, only silvery bright mixed with bronze," she said at the time. "It was as pretty as anything I ever saw."
She called out to her husband, Paul, who came outside and also witnessed the object. He ran back inside, grabbed his folding Kodak Roamer camera and snapped one photo, re-wound the film as fast as he could (time-consuming for a 1950 camera), and got off a second shot as soon as he could. What he captured was two photos of shocking clarity right before the object sped away to the west. Paul's father was also there that night and he, too, witnessed the event. They said later that it actually created a breeze that could be felt moving through their hair.
The delay between shots turned out to be fortuitous. Not only was the object moving away, but Trent changed his position to get a better position on it, which turned out to be extremely useful when it came time to make a detailed photographic analysis of the object.
To underscore just how unassuming the Trents were, they actually waited to finish the roll of film on the coming Mother's Day and before having it developed, it was almost a month since the sighting. They were frugal to a fault and, it should be noted, during this time they sought no publicity. Soon after they got them back from being developed (nothing instant in those days), Paul showed them to his banker, Frank Wortman, who displayed them in the bank's window. This led to a visit from local reporter Bill Powell from the "Telephone-Register," who asked the Trents to loan him the negatives. Powell found no evidence that they'd been tampered with, faked or hoaxed.
Powell's subsequent story, along with the two photos, appeared on the front page of that paper on June 9, 1950. A single day later, Portland's big paper, "The Oregonian," published them, too. Then they were picked up by the International News Service (INS) and were widely published across the United States.
The "Telephone Register" editor Phil Bladine remembered that requests for reprints of the paper came from all over the world. Many of the people contacting the paper had stories to tell. "People said that they'd seen a flying saucer, but didn't want to tell anyone because they were afraid they'd be thought nuts."
Within the month, on June 26, 1950, those two photographs were in "Life" magazine.
While it's appropriate that LIFE actually covered this story, keep in mind it got a single page out of a 144 page magazine, that most of that page was devoted to the photos, that the title "Farmer Trent's Flying Saucer" made it sound a little silly, and that the tone of the few words they did write was light and they repeatedly called him "Farmer Trent," and there was no investigation involved. In short, the coverage -- although more than anyone else by virtue of its even existing -- was hardly what one would expect if there was even the slightest chance this was an authentic mystery. Here we reprint, in its entirely, every word that LIFE wrote:
Since this was the only fully-national coverage, we include the two photo captions. First, for the top photo: "Looking somewhat like a Chinese Coolie Hat, the saucer hovers over Trent's farm. He estimated that it was 20 to 30 feet in diameter." The caption for the bottom photo was: "Second picture shows saucer moving away. None of Trent's neighbors saw the saucer, but his wife did and backs up what her husband says." Of course, in truth, his wife actually saw it first, and there was another witness as well.
Farmer Paul Trent of McMinnville, Ore. is a frugal man. Last winter he bought a roll of film for his camera and shot a snow scene. One month later he took a picture of a weeping willow in his front yard. Last May 11 he saw a flying saucer above his house and made two pictures of that. On Mother's Day he used up the last three negatives on his roll at a family picnic. Then he got the film printed up.
Somebody told Trent he ought to show the two flying saucer pictures to the editor of the weekly McMinnville Telephone Register. The editor thought the pictures were pretty good and printed them on page one together with everything Trent had to say about the saucer -- that it shone like silver, made no noise nor smoke and after a minute or two whisked over the horizon to the northwest.
Herewith LIFE prints Farmer Trent's pictures. No more can be said for them than that the man who took them is an honest individual and that the negatives show no sign of having been tampered with, although there are people who would say that the object looks like the lid of a garbage can. If any other flying saucers turns up, Farmer Trent will photograph them if he can, and we may get a look at the pictures sometime around next Christmas.
Paul Trent actually thought he had photographed some type of secret military plane. He was reluctant at first to even let the newspaper publish the photos. He was quoted in the first story as saying, "I'm afraid I'll get into trouble with the government."
Air Force investigators and FBI agents visited the Trents several times in the weeks after the photos went public. When they did, they took photos of their own, searched the house and questioned the family.
Incredibly, either "Life" or a New York based TV show, "We the People" misplaced or kept the negatives or gave them to the Air Force (accounts vary) but the upshot is that they were lost for 17 years. Re-discovered in 1967 for study by the Condon Committee, they've been subjected to intense scrutiny involving computer analysis and sophisticated scanning and stretching procedures. The Trents’ background was also thoroughly checked.
And, during all that testing, they've been published and re-published throughout the world, studied by official committees, and experts have tried to validate them and debunk them.
Frank Edwards, a national radio and TV personality and UFO authority, claimed to have taken two enlargements of the photos to the Pentagon. "I was told," he said on his national program, "they were the best civilian photographs of an Unidentified Flying Object that the Air Force had ever seen."
In an Air Force investigation of the UFO reports at the University of Colorado in 1967 -- known as the Condon Report -- astronomer William Hartmann determined that the evidence indicated, "This is one of the few UFO reports in which all factors investigated, geometric, psychological, and physical, appear to be consistent with the assertion that an extraordinary flying object, silvery, metallic, disk-shaped, tens of meters in diameter, and evidently artificial, flew within sight of two witnesses." Hartmann later backpedaled on this analysis and how you feel about that probably depends on your tolerance for conspiracy theories.
What we do know is that these controversial photographs remain the best-publicized in UFO history and are certainly the most-discussed and debated. To many researchers, they rate as the most reliable and persuasive in arguing for the existence of UFOs as a real, physical phenomenon. To skeptics, however, the photos have been dismissed as fakes or a hoax. This is the only viable attack on them, of course, since the image can't be dismissed as anything but a flying saucer.
Overall, however, Paul and Evelyn Trent's two photos have stood up to the tests. The negatives were never tampered with, at least by them. As we note, somehow after they were initially published they ended up in the possession of a magazine, a TV show or the Air Force (take your pick and name your motive) and did go missing for 17 years before being turned over to the Condon Committee investigating UFOs, and then in 1970 -- 20 years after taking them -- they were returned to the local paper. But when they came back, they'd been tampered with considerably; someone had cropped them, trimming down the edges and reducing their overall size so that parts of the original image were missing.
Even cropped, however, the negatives were still negatives, and the full scope of the original photos had been seen in their original publishing. It would probably make a fair book (or at least a scholarly article) tracking down who had them and has them over the years, but it's more than I can manage here. Portland station KATU looked into it as recently as 2008 when the Trent children were trying to get them back from the McMinnville newspaper which wanted to keep them for a museum.
The bottom line -- what matters most -- is that the strong majority of the experts, and not just UFO believers, seem to fall on the side of authenticity and not fakery.
In 1975, Bruce Maccabee, a Navy physicist and UFO researcher who specializes in analyzing such photos, supervised the first of several test phases, including later computer enhancement tests, and others have done the same, and the one thing they all agree on is that the object was not a model suspended on a string -- the only real hoax method available for them. (Ironically, Maccabee had the negatives from 1974 until recently when he sent them to the McMinnville newspaper.)
In any case, Maccabee spent a great deal of time with the Trents over the course of those years while he studied the photos. His stand on the photos is well-recorded but here is his take on the Trent's honesty, "I basically concluded that they were not the type of people who would attempt a UFO hoax, to say nothing of pulling one off."
Maybe you say, people like Bruce Maccabee just want to believe. This falls under, if you can't dismiss the results, dismiss the researcher. Yet, even so:
As I said, I grew up in the area, so it's not surprising to have friends who had personal contact with the story. One of them — Patti Lawler Scarbrough, who I went to Hillsboro High School with — said this, "I knew Mr. and Mrs. Trent through my nursing career. They were the most down-to-Earth, sweet, credible people you'd ever want to meet. I was employed by the Internist who was their MD. Through all those years, they never even talked about the photos even though they were famous worldwide. They were just humble farmers with a camera at the right time."
No one -- from Maccabbee to my friend -- has ever said anything about the Trents other than that they were low-key, honest people. Period. They never made money from the photos they legitimately owned, nor did they ever try to.
Evelyn Trent died in 1997 and her husband, Paul Trent, passed away a year later. To the end of their lives, they both insisted that their sighting, and the photos, were genuine.
To quote the Condon Report, "While it would be exaggerating to say that we have positively ruled out a fabrication, it appears significant that the simplest most direct interpretation of the photographs confirms precisely what the witnesses said they saw."
Maybe you'll take a moment to listen to a new song that's been produced on the 60th anniversary of these photos. It's called "Need-to-Know: The UFO Disclosure Song" and you can hear it by clicking on the artwork below. You can get a 256 kbps quality copy of the song from iTunes, Amazon and eMusic.