Thursday, May 17, 2007

Mark Klett's Rephotographics

"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." Mark Klett.

Klett is now apparently beyond his Rephotographic Survey Project, the re-photographing the work of the likes of O'Sullivan and W.H. Jackson on the various historic Western Surveys, and on to a re-re-photographic project, what he calls the Third View

I find I really want to like Klett's work but have a hard time completley doing so. The original RSP project was a fine and innovative idea, as well as something of a reaction to the New Topographics movement of the same era (although I must say I think the two groups actually have more in common than they like to admit).

But at times it all seems like a good idea pushed a bit too far to the Nth degree. The rephotographing of Muybridge's historic panorama of San Francisco sounds like a good idea on paper - but I don't feel it quite worked. And the Third View seems much more valuable to the participants than as a wider, more public work. Indeed, Klett explicit likens it to field work with students as with other disciplines such as anthropology or archeology. And in truth, we all know that the value of much of the student work on such trips are often mainly educational - and that Professors easily get bogged down and prevented from following their own course of research as rigorously as they could or should. There is a sense as well that it is trying to adopt a sort of scientific methodology for the project, but without abandoning the chance and poetry such photographic endeavours generate - but that it somehow doesn't always manage to get the best of both worlds. (either way, the Third View website has lots of interactive stuff on it that you can hunt around and enjoy).

And yet despite all this, there are many of Klett's individual images that I really rather like - occasionally whole sequences. His project Ideas About Time, for example (I'm not sure if that may be one of the personal projects that is pursued alongside the "official" survey work of the Third View work?). In fact, apart from the general essence of the original RSP, I find it is Klett's more personal work that appeals to me.

Photoeye has a gallery of quite a number of his images, with links to his books. I also came across an interesting essay on his work - a few quotes:

"...But perhaps the greatest conceptual achievement of the Rephotographic Survey Project, 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." 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." ) 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..."

and of course, there's always the Twin Peaks rephotographic project...

1 comment:

Luis said...

The Rephotographic Project was a revelation in many ways, settling a debate about one of my favorite landscapists, O'Sullivan.

There very few longitudinal studies in science or the arts, and this project spanned a long time, meaning we got to see long-term changes we normally never see (brings to mind Bill Christenberry, Nick Nixon's Wife's Sisters portrait, O'Keefe by Stieglitz, the guy that re-did Atget's Paris, and to a much lesser degree, the guy who did pix of his daughter's chest).

The changes played nicely into making history visible at a time when the end of history was being bandied about, and ecological change, as well. It played in the area of the core meaning(s) of the photographic process and time itself.

The project's secondary significance (and one of the best definitions of great art is that it spawns secondary work) was how it changed the way Klett and Adams (Robert) worked, and did so in related, mirrored yet parallel vectors.

Look at the work of these guys, who are (re?) photographing scenes from crime reports:

Very interesting stuff, making the leap from. Word to image, past to present, etc.

--- Luis