Mark Klett, Photography, and the Reinvention of Landscape (2001)

SF Panorama, 1990

Another Look At The West – View Finder: Mark Klett, Photography, and the Reinvention of Landscape

By Stephen Longmire, Afterimage, July 2001

We now view landscape photographs, both past and present, much like the shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave. They are artifacts of what we think we know about the land, and how we have come to know it. On the strength of his first published body of photographs, Mark Klett could easily have passed for a conceptual artist. The cool, impersonal diptychs of the Rephotographic Survey Project (RSP)–on which Klett collaborated with Ellen Manchester, JoAnn Verburg, Gordon Bushaw and Rick Dingus–paired classic nineteenth-century survey photographs of the American West with contemporary views from precisely the same vantage points, which they painstakingly triangulated in space just over a century later, between 1977 and 1979, as if doing so might allow them to reinhabit a nineteenth-century point of view. This made the RSP pairs exact contemporaries, according to the inexorable logic of the art world, to Sherrie Levine’s “ghosts”–the wry rephotographs of “masterpieces” of modernist photography by the likes of Walker Evans and Edward Weston that she offered for sale under her own name. Artistic originality was at an all-time low–or high–value, depending on one’s point of view. Levine maintained that her appropri ated copies sucked some of the over-inflated value out of their “originals–a category photography, the democratic art, was not supposed to perpetuate. (In printmaker’s terms, a ghost is the uninked afterimage struck from a used plate, bleeding it dry.) Nevertheless, in what was perhaps her supreme joke, she placed a hefty price on her own “originality.”

In a positivist gesture uncharacteristic of the time, the RSP rephotographed the sites of the original survey photographs, not just the prints–though they did that too. In their 1984 publication, Second View, and in the paired prints they exhibited, a rephotograph of the first view always accompanied the second, which functioned as an equivocal punch line, revealing how the site looked now. The RSP photographers took copy photographs of the “originals” that were their models, most frequently made by William Henry Jackson or–their special favorite–Timothy O’Sullivan, into the field to help them locate vantage points; theirs was also an investigation of photographic history, in the context of the history of the land. But whereas Levine endeavored to demonstrate the claustrophobic effects of a male-dominated photographic history characterized by endless replications of established masterpieces and no opportunity for new visions except in the guise of further reproductions, the RSP effectively showed that pho tographic history existed in real time on the ground, as well as on paper and in our minds. All this at a time when the art value of the “documentary” survey photographs, made on government and railroad sponsored exhibitions to determine the character and potential of America’s newly acquired western territory just after the Civil War, was being hotly debated, as they made their way into art museums and into the work of young landscape photographers.

But perhaps the greatest conceptual achievement of the RSP, with their seemingly affectless pairs of images, was to create stereo “photographs” in the fourth dimension, their exposure time a virtual century. The real interest of these pairs is typically the space in-between, where all the changes occurred, or failed to. Are the housing developments and highways that appear, and the mines that occasionally disappear, developments or depredations? From the point of view of a century, the distinction begins to dissolve. Sometimes the absence of change is most salient. On isolated mountainsides the positions of individual rocks can be compared across what is, after all, only a blink in geologic time.

In one of his most deftly tongue-in-cheek tales, Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges tells of “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote,” the twentieth-century Symbolist poet whose magnum opus consisted in the precise recreation, in flawless seventeenth-century Spanish, of select chapters from Miguel de Cervantes’s classic novel, Don Quixote. “He did not want to compose another Don Quixote–which would be easy–but the Don Quixote.” [2] This was not to be a matter of copying, either. “His admirable ambition was to produce pages which would coincide–word for word and line for line–with those of Miguel de Cervantes.” Needless to say, he did not bother to reread the “original” first–that would be child’s play. His goal, rather, was to discover whether a seventeenth-century literary masterpiece could be written in the twentieth century. Or, in Menard’s own words, “I have contracted the mysterious duty of reconstructing literally his spontaneous work.” Because of the irony of this circumstance, Borges’s narrator in sists, “The text of Cervantes and that of Menard are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer.” Indeed, he goes so far as to venture, “I often imagine that he finished and that I am reading Don Quixote–the entire work–as if Menard had conceived it.”

Klett had also contracted the mysterious duty of reconstructing literally what his predecessors did spontaneously, and in doing so he has enriched the historical record with countless ironies. (Not least of them, as Verburg wrote in Second View, was that, “Unlike our predecessors, we did not take what we thought would be appealing shots.” [3]) In the context of this oddly Borgesian enterprise, the question naturally arose, what would it be to conceive a photographic survey of the American West today, when the frontier is long closed and none of the original purposes–assessing the land’s mineral wealth and its potential for defense and development–can realistically be served, but the consequences of these projects are more or less apparent? As it was for Menard, copying was the path to creation for Klett. The way to mount a latter-day photographic survey of the West that would not simply prove received assumptions about land use (like so much of the New Topographics work against which the RSP chafed) was to copy the classics, word for word, knowing the inflections would be new with the passage of time. Never mind that the nineteenth-century surveys, led by scientists like Clarence King or military men like George Wheeler, were not strictly photographic surveys–they were geographical and geological surveys that took photographers along. The RSP never followed the routes of the original survey parties for long–instead they honed in on the photographers they admired and followed in their footsteps, willfully begging the question of how much agency these individuals had. By repeating views, they established that O’Sullivan in particular was not above twisting his camera dramatically to make natural conditions, like the slant of a hillside, conform to his ideals of wildness. They brought the historical record to life, putting it in the hands of working photographers.

Beginning with some photographs he made at RSP campsites, Klett went on to do what he calls his “personal work,” featured in the 1992 collection Revealing Territory, among other publications. He continued using the 4 x 5-inch view camera and Polaroid positive/negative film he and his RSP colleagues fancifully felt approximated the nineteenth-century wet-plate process, since it too must be processed (if not coated) in the field. He also continued working on collaborative surveys, notably the “Water in the West” project and a survey of California’s Main Headlands as they passed from military to recreational use. And he continued making occasional rephotographs, interspersed with personal work, like his often reproduced 1986 color panorama of the Grand Canyon, Around Toroweap Point, just before and after sundown, beginning and ending with views used by J.K. Hillers over one hundred years earlier, Grand Canyon, August 17, 1986, a sequence of five photographs tracing a bend in the Colorado River beginning and end ing with rephotographs of nineteenth-century views John Hillers made while surveying for John Wesley Powell.

Since 1997 Klett has led Third View, an eclectic survey on which he and a shifting band of his students from Arizona State University, where he has worked since 1982, revisit RSP sites, and, occasionally, sites of nineteenth-century survey photographs the RSP never got to, working this time on much looser terms. The focus of the visit is still to rephotograph, with mathematical accuracy, the original view(s), but now Klett has deployed the full arsenal of contemporary recording devices on his archaeological sites, more fully to mine the strata of time in the places long dead photographers chose for him. The original Third View team included Klett, Kyle Bajakian, Toshi Ueshina and Byron Wolfe; Mike Marshall has since joined the group. Writer William Fox–the first non-student, apart from Klett–joined the party on its summer travels in 1998 and again in 1999, and his recent account of the project unfortunately remains the only widely available publication of Third View–authorized, if not official. Part trave log, part art history primer, it elegantly provides the context for Klett’s life’s work without venturing much in the way of criticism. (Opportunities for comparison to Richard Misrach’s racier work are rife, for example, but never taken up, to the point one feels Fox strained to avoid offending his subject.) This is the kind of book most artists would love to have written about themselves–admiring and intelligent. What is unfortunate is that an inherently multi-media project, including still photographs from various eras, interspersed with video and sound footage (when the project is viewed in CD-ROM form, as it was in Klett’s 1999 retrospective at Los Angeles’s Huntington Library, and as it can be seen through September 16, 2001 as part of the exhibition “In Praise of Nature: Ansel Adams and Photographers of the American West” at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, or, on an ongoing basis, at the Center for Land Use Interpretation in Los Angeles) can only be experienced as a traditional photog raphic project in the stills included in View Finder for the time being. The Web was clearly expected to be Third View’s optimal venue, but the group’s Web site seems to be perpetually under construction and remains at the level of a good idea whose time may yet come. [4] As Fox writes of the survey party’s ongoing frustration with their difficulties uploading data to the Web from the field, “It’s a great concept, but we’re caught in twin inflationary spirals of technology and expectations. Unfortunately the technological capabilities aren’t rising fast enough to meet the expectations.”

Soon satellites will do what countless modems in motel rooms apparently cannot, and the data stream will be endless. Until then, the artifice of selecting particular sites over which they have had little or no control in order to accommodate the hermetic demands of an intensely ritualized historical art, only to let loose, recording and collecting whatever the team may find–unlike the RSP, Third View collects, and sometimes leaves, artifacts, entering the time line as a full body experience–remains a viable way of sorting out and preserving a collective experience on the land. It is also, Fox makes clear, good clean fun, the ultimate boy scout adventure, all about time capsules.

Klett’s recurrent advice to the team is that this survey is to be “less like journalism and more like poetry.” He wants to be very clear about the observer’s participatory role–on the land, and in the historical record that parallels it–so evidence of the Third View party often appears in their images. In this way viewers are obsessively reminded that the gathering of information is always personal and never value-neutral. Klett made this argument quietly in his photographs in Revealing Territory, but here he takes it to the nth degree. Yet he wants his field workers to adopt a neutral stance when gathering oral histories, whatever their environmental politics. “We’re not looking for anything, but finding something,” he reminds them. “So, if you find an artifact from the radiation station and when you go into town maybe it comes up in a conversation–you’re keyed into it. That’s not the same as asking: ‘What’s it feel like to live next to the Test Site?’ You’d get two different kinds of answers.” Fox–fait hful Boswell to Klett’s pithy Dr. Johnson–jots down, “he’s after the context not of the place, but of the process we’re engaged in.”

That process, set up more than 20 years ago, now revived and dramatically extended in this new chapter of the broader Rephotographic Survey, is at once exceedingly limited, almost a parody of scientific accuracy, and as limitless as chance. As such it is paradigmatic of many less refined photographic practices. The real impact of Klett’s ongoing collaborative diary in four dimensions may be to bridge the mental gap between the “undeveloped” nineteenth-century West and the overdeveloped one of the present, reminding us all the while that we only know the world by experience, but that we only know our experience by the technologies used to gather it. Other photographers may strive to change our western experiences with their artful technologies, but Klett, despite an obviously heartfelt conservation ethic, operates at several removes from contemporary politics.

A refrain throughout View Finder is Klett’s encouragement to his students that they too make their own personal work after fulfilling their assigned tasks on the group’s annual expeditions. More than a few young photographers have been shaped in one way or another by the framework Klett has offered them. Toward the end he tells Fox that he may encourage the Third View party to start visiting sites where no known nineteenth-century views were made. There may be no end to this spiraling project. Still, like Borges, I often imagine that he finished and that I am seeing the West–all of it–as if Klett had conceived it himself.

STEPHEN LONGMIRE is a landscape photographer and writer based in Washington, D.C. He is currently artist-in-residence at the National Park Service’s Herbert Hoover National Historic Site in West Branch, Iowa.

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