Photographer Mark Klett speaks about his lifelong love of Western landscapes in a soft baritone like polished gravel. He talks about how his parents, who settled in New York, traveled frequently to visit his mother’s family in California, and about how, when he was young, he yearned to close the distance between himself and the West.
Photographer and regents’ professor of art at Arizona State University
Documenting our changing relationship with Western landscapes
"Photos always seem to exist as sort of stuffy, unnecessary antiques that we put in a drawer — unless we take them out, put them in current dialogue, and give them relevance."
Klett studied both science and art in college in the East, and served briefly as a photographer for the U.S. Geological Survey. It wasn’t long before he came West for good, and began to use photography to tell the story of the land.
Klett’s work is rooted in the mid-1800s, the "survey age" of the Western territories. While Manifest Destiny was hitting its stride, the government and private interests financed wide-ranging surveys of the land and resources of the West. The resulting photographs whetted the nation’s appetite for ranching, logging, mining and settlement. At the same time, the photographers created an enduring record of the region.
"The large-scale exploration of the West coincided with vast improvements in photographic technology," says Klett. "The opening of the photographic record coincided neatly with our ‘discovery’ of the West." In the 1970s, Klett led an ambitious effort to rephotograph more than 90 Western survey sites. Though rephotography is almost as old as landscape photography itself, it was long viewed as simply a technical tool; Klett and his early collaborators were among the first to treat it as both a science and an art.
The resulting book, Second View, published in 1984, documented immense changes, some of them surprising: Western cities had certainly expanded, but it was the region’s supporting infrastructure — the reservoirs, canals and pipelines — that left the broadest mark on the landscape. "The biggest physical change in the West had to do with water," says Klett.
Even so, some of his rephotographs show that nature is on the mend: From 1860 to 1880, for example, the Gould and Curry Mine in Virginia City, Nev., was a teeming industrial site. All that remains now is a single road.
When Klett revisited these sites a second time in the late 1990s, for a project he called Third Views, he found more subtle changes. "There are more roads, and now there are cell phones, so the West feels less remote," he says. "Even if the physical space hasn’t changed much, it feels like it has, and drastically."
For his latest book, Yosemite in Time, Klett and his collaborators, writer Rebecca Solnit and photographer Byron Wolfe, revisited Yosemite sites explored by landscape photographers Eadweard Muybridge, Edward Weston, and Ansel Adams between 1859 and 1937. Like biologist Joseph Grinnell, these photographers have allowed modern Westerners to measure changes in Yosemite’s mythic landscape.
Physical change in Yosemite is often easy to capture on film: In some places, for example, fire suppression has turned meadows into forests. The photographs and text in Yosemite in Time also describe the changing experiences of park visitors.
"The artists who came before us found what they were looking for — tangles, precipices, and dramas in Muybridge’s case ... supernatural clarity in Adams’s," writes Solnit. "We too found what we were looking for: a landscape full of photographs, ghosts, shifts in vegetation, and other traces of passing time."
The traces of time continue to feed Klett’s fascination with the Western landscape, even places he visits over and over again. Each time he returns, he tries to look at these places with new eyes, in hopes of finding something different. He says: "That’s what artists do."