In the 20 years that Mark Klett has been making pictures of the American West, his photographs have come to symbolize its ongoing revision in the American mind. No longer an eternal paradise of opportunity and natural splendor, it has become a lesson in the rub between the two.
Take your pick: rivers or dams, desert or farms, trees or lumber, wilderness or development, let alone the prevailing question of natives or newcomers--these are our larger preoccupations with the West.
Yet Klett, who teaches at Arizona State University and is showing recent photographs from Portugal and Japan at the Lisa Sette Gallery, has intentionally kept his eye on the smaller ones--the human traces and ironies he has found under foot or just out of reach.
His West for the most part has been a place whose once-heady mix of ambition and Eden has been worn down to such day-to-day scenes as weathered debris in the desert, saguaros riddled with bullet holes, his own shadow at the edge of the frame, a car blurring past a snake at road's edge, or people doing nothing in particular in astonishing, sometimes manmade, settings--Lake Powell, for instance.
The revelation of Klett's work has been that landscape is a personal idea; it has less to do with pretty scenery than with what he thinks about, sees and experiences in considering the land.
This approach has struck a chord. He exhibits widely, in solo and group shows. His works sell well. He has received numerous grants, published a half-dozen or so books, and is represented in some of the world's topnotch collections.
It's an enviable position for any artist, and certainly a worthy argument against making a dramatic change.
Yet Klett's new work contains a shift worth seeing.
Because these aren't pictures of the West, they reveal what he sees in unfamiliar terrain.
The show's largest work, a wall-length composition of 40 separate images taken during a recent stay in Japan, offers insights into how Klett uses photography to make sense of the world.
Not surprisingly, the sense he makes is consistent wherever he goes. Like his images of the West, his black-and-white photographs from Portugal show the same preoccupation with the traces of man's interaction with the landscape.
The eternal effort to use and commemorate the use of the land is the quiet theme of "Damming the Douro"--which could almost pass for a shot overlooking Roosevelt Dam--or "Olive Trees," "Grapes for Port Wine," the beautiful "Wall made of stone slabs," or "Sandeman"--a wine-ad billboard featuring a distant, sinister-looking figure in a cloak and hat.
What raises Klett's message above the bumper sticker are the varied and subtle ways he conveys it. He avoids the didactic. And he has a deft eye for balancing the formal and narrative (how things look and what they mean). He also understands that, as we change the terrain, it changes us; it defines our outlook, our expectations, our sense of who we are and what we value.
As complete as they are individually, Klett's photographs are little more than clues to this larger meaning. Their effect is cumulative, building Klett's point of view by revealing what he has paid attention to.
Until recently, Klett has been comfortable concentrating that point of view into stand-alone images. But his composition "Nothing can be done," of 40 color and black-and-white pictures from Japan, exemplifies his curiosity about what can be said in a series of different, sometimes contrasting pictures.
Klett attributes the idea of presenting images that aren't necessarily important by themselves to Japanese Emaki scroll paintings.
"These were the horizontal scrolls that you would take out and look at at arm's length," he says. "But you could only see as much as you could uncurl at a time."
Like the rephotographic panoramas Klett made several years ago in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., the scroll offered the whole in fragments, one frame at a time. Unlike the panoramas, the whole picture comes together only in the viewer's mind.
Those stated influences aside, the true god of fragmented thought is television. In Klett's Japanese travelogue, you have a sedated form of channel surfing or the storyboard for a television commercial, whose quick cuts between different images force you--whether you're aware of it or not--to engage in sudden shifts among seeing, remembering and comparing.
The difference is that the viewer controls the pace and direction of Klett's work. Though he conceived it to flow from left to right, there is nothing to keep the eye from roving, pausing, studying, or from returning to images already seen. So, bit by bit, experience becomes memory, and memory becomes the basis for seeing and comparing the new.
This reenactment of travel and tourism is no coincidence. Klett says he went to Japan partly to see a new landscape, and to clear the West and the kind of pictures he was expected to make of it out of his head. Success can turn artists into character actors confined to the work people expect of them.
Klett says, "I didn't really know what to expect or what I was going to produce in Japan. I actually toyed with the idea of not making pictures at all. But, obviously, I didn't stick with it." He decided instead to try to make a different kind of picture.
"I had nothing to lose," he says. "I had no vested interest in anything, so I could just as easily photograph in Kobe or walking down the street to the supermarket or going to the temple."
He swapped his customary big camera and tripod, which required him to ponder every aspect of each shot, for a small camera which freed him from the rigors of taking meaningful pictures.
"I could pick it up and literally not look through the view finder," he says, "but just point and shoot. It allowed me to be quick and shoot without dwelling on the image, so I could really grab images as I was moving through space. I was consciously trying not to make images that were meant to be great images by themselves, and to think instead about what the whole could be if it were composed of a lot of parts."
He carried the camera every time he went out. He took more pictures there in six months than he could imagine taking here, simply because, he says, "If I had six months here to work in the landscape every day--something I've already got a history of--I'd demand another kind of imagery. I probably wouldn't give myself the freedom to just shoot anything that caught my eye.
"I hoped that experience would rub off and give me a better sense of how to deal with this landscape here. And maybe not even think about it in terms of landscape. Maybe think of myself as a photographer in some other way, because I wasn't even sure I wanted the moniker 'landscape photographer' anymore. I didn't want the limitation."
All of that is apparent in the way Klett organized the groups of pictures on the wall, juxtaposing images that together could strengthen the visual and narrative themes of his work.
There's the obligatory shot of Mount Fuji. Then, beside it, a distant view through the frame of a train window of a billboard lady with a parasol. Then a slightly blurry woman on a train--seen but unaware. Then the eyes of a man in a picture peering through some sort of opening.
It's fairly easy to read into these the notion of a watchful observer being observed--the stranger/tourist who is as much a curiosity to the locals as they and their surroundings are to him. Yet all is not unfamiliar. There are pictures of posters selling Lucky Strikes and Rolexes; there's the Peace Memorial in Hiroshima, whose shattered dome rises like a broken birdcage. And, above it on the wall, there's a black-and-white image of a glove in water, looking eerily like a hand reaching out of the fog.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
In Klett's images from Hiroshima and Kobe, the rubble of wars and earthquakes suggests something vague about cycles of human and natural destruction and rebirth, but these and other notions are just passing thoughts.
That's partly because of Klett's customary reticence about declaring the full meaning of his pictures. Yet it also stems from this montage being Klett's first draft of an idea. There are some beautiful images in the groupings, but the overall work suffers from the traveler's distracted urge to fit everything in, to make sense of it all. The value of Klett's travelogue is the clear and rare view it gives of Klett's editorial process, and its reminder that seeing is more a matter of thinking than of believing.
Mark Klett's "New Work From Portugal & Japan" continues through Saturday,
July 6, at Lisa Sette Gallery, 4142 North Marshall Way in Scottsdale.