Contemplating the View at Muley Point
Interview with Mark Klett by Douglas Beasley
Shots #140 - Summer 2018
DOUGLAS BEASLEY: I first became interested in your work because of the way you incorporated humans into the natural world, specifically into nature settings that were usually void of people yet had human presence. There is one photo specifically, the one looking out with a rock shelf overhead and a pair of legs dangling into the frame from above. That photo had a huge impact on the way I saw nature and the natural environment and along with Robert Adams, has had a huge lasting impact on me. Can you tell me more about how that came to be?
MARK KLETT: The location is Muley Point, Utah. The “point” is actually a long cliff face of sandstone that drops over 1000 feet to a plateau. The view is spectacular. The gooseneck bends of the San Juan River can be seen below the point and Monument Valley is in the distance. On one trip, I decided to make a photograph about what I was doing - watching the early morning light. I chose my legs and feet because I wanted the human part to be limited and anonymous. I found a good vantage point below where I was sitting to place the camera, making it feel more like the figure was soaring than sitting. I was alone and no one was around to pose or press the shutter so I had to devise a self-timer for my view camera. I inherited an old mechanism from my father that when wound would compress a cable release, and this gave me just enough time to set the shutter and climb back up to the sitting position before the exposure was made. Having a human presence in the work has been important to me for a long time. For one thing, a figure can become a surrogate for the viewer and helps lessen the distance felt between self and place. It’s not always important to me who that person in the view is, but sometimes, like in this photograph, the fact that it was me in the picture carries with it personal significance.
You’re a full-time teacher at Arizona State University in Tempe AZ. How does teaching impact your photography and your ability to create new work?
I’ve been fortunate to work with a great bunch of colleagues and mentor many interesting and talented students over the years. An academic appointment does impact my ability to spend time photographing, but teaching has been a very positive part of my professional life. I sometimes feel that I’ve learned more from my students that they’ve learned from me and working with them keeps me current and on my toes intellectually. Some projects have actually involved collaborations with my students. And my long-term partner in collaboration, Byron Wolfe, began as one of my graduate students.
How important is education in developing as a photographer?
I don’t think anyone needs a college or graduate degree to be a good photographer. But being in school, working with the right teachers and working alongside a cohort of fellow photographers can be a very significant experience. At the least it can accelerate development of the work, and even more it can alter the direction of practice and open up pathways that are very difficult if not impossible to do on one’s own.
At a minimum, I believe photographers need to realize they work within a community, and that no one really labors alone. Education, or being in a school program, is often the foundation of community for many photographers. It sets their course, so to speak. But once a student graduates it’s their job to identify the community they want to become a part of.
Beneath the Great Arch
Any trends you see in your students work that are good or bad/difficult?
The challenges that students face today are only different on the surface. Those relate to changes in technology, or social media, or the trends in the art world. Underneath it all, the desire for a person to make art or photographically derived images, or work through life’s problems and joys, are ultimately the same as they were when I started. Part of my job is to be a coach of sorts, to help them work their way through those trends and personal challenges. It’s different from every student and that’s why I try to listen carefully, while I also have a lot of experience to offer on the creative process they’re going through.
Last light on the Echo Cliffs
A lot of your work in the past, such as the Rephotographic Survey Project, is drawn from photo history. How important for photographers is a background in photo history?
I think it’s very important, or it has been to me at least. I like the idea of using history as a platform to work from, mostly because it’s a way of coming to terms with the present, and a potential future. But I would add that it’s not just photo history that can be significant. Other kinds of history may be more critical for some, or contemporary cultural or social issues. Most artists don’t reinvent the medium as they work, they operate from positions that have been pioneered by many others. Having a background in photo history helps photographers to know they’re a part of an ongoing conversation, and it keeps them from feeling isolated in time.
What do you do for inspiration?
Read and look at other work – often not photography and not art. I get inspired by history and science and sometimes fiction. I love stories. I also camp and travel, meet new people.
What do you do when you are feeling uninspired?
I think inspiration isn’t something that’s elusive, it’s more a matter of being open to possibilities that may easily go unobserved. The rest is hard work and having the discipline to work through slow periods. Practically speaking, I find there’s plenty of other stuff to work on at all times, even repairs in the studio, or something I’ve put off like adding new work to my websites. It can be busywork, but it frees up my head at the same time.
What advice do you have for photographers just starting out?
Remember, it’s a long-term game. Work develops over time, as it should. The same with relationships to others who also are part of the same field as you. If you take the long view, you can weather the ups and downs easier.
Entering a Narrow Cave
All Images Copyright Mark Klett