For much of his career Klett has been involved in a collaborative undertaking known as the Rephotographic Survey Project, in which teams of photographers periodically revisit the sites of iconic photographs or paintings of prominent vistas from America's Western landscape. Klett ascertains the exact point from which Ansel Adams or Edward Weston aimed his camera, shoots a new photo, and then compares the results. Frequently dramatic changes have occurred in the landscape. Refreshingly, equally as often, not much has changed.
In a lecture he presented two weeks ago, Klett pointed out that his work is really about the time in between the photos, the lapse in between images. "Ideas About Time" compels one to think about the nature of recorded history and of what is left out, which therefore remains dubious, inexplicable, or cloudy.
Klett creates compositions using reproductions of photographs by different artists from different moments in time. He then maps the space in between, say, a Carleton Watkins and a Timothy O'Sullivan with his own imagery, knitting together three distinct moments on that same spatial coordinate. A resourceful treasure hunter prospecting for lost time, Klett utilizes photography's varied strategies for modeling time.
This exhibition, organized by Arizona State University (where Klett is a professor), is making the rounds of university museums across the U.S., and for good reason. The work is technically astute, possessed of a sense of the history of the art form, and Klett himself is willing and able to come along and be part of the product. Armed with an informative, interactive CD-ROM, he is able to take students and visitors to the gallery on a behind-the-scenes tour of his process. No one could fail to be enchanted by this interactive form, which enables viewers to open windows onto several historical eras simultaneously by navigating with a joystick. This extension of the photographer's craft into multimedia suggests that Klett's engagement with his medium is very elastic, very fluid, like the nature of time itself.
Klett acknowledges that panoramas generally imply that time travels in a line or in a 360-degree circular motion, doubling back to its origin. In his experience, however, he has come to see time as traveling more in spirals, and he made the connection to artist Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, a well-known earthwork in Utah's Great Salt Lake, which itself disintegrates and reappears in the landscape as time passes. Klett is also drawn to dramatic seismic events that have altered the landscape, such as the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, which destroyed much of that city. He has patiently scoured contemporary San Francisco to excavate with his camera the vestiges of destroyed or renovated buildings from that era.
In one series, Klett subjects himself to the test of time by recording a self-portrait in the same position on the birthday of his daughter each year. While the little girl in his arms undergoes more noticeable changes than does her father, he too is modified by time, but in a more subtle way, becoming worn and lined, adopting different arrangements of facial hair. Photographer and photographed are engaged in a duet fraught with expectations, projections, and assumptions. In a Newtonian world, the photographer aims his camera at the subject, and that subject is faithfully reproduced. But following the intrusion of Einstein's theory of relativity and the advent of postmodernity, nothing is fixed. The photographer is aging, the subject is decaying, and the resulting photographic work is a tentative, provisional product, riddled with ambiguity, speaking more of loss than permanence.
A seemingly restless technician, Klett exhibits works that are created in a variety of print technologies, from gelatin silver prints to iris ink-jet prints, from dye-transfer prints to pigmented ink-jet prints and color-coupler laser prints. For all his access to 21st-century digital technology, Klett is clearly struck by the mystique of late nineteenth-century photography. There is something dense in photographs from that era; they seem to be laden with meaning. The land forms appear more massive, more solid, more timeless, a lone cactus more isolated, rooted, and immobile. The long exposure times of the large-format cameras of the day soaked and impregnated the photographic subject with all possible available light, rendering objects somehow more completely dimensional.
A photographer friend who accompanied me to the exhibition remarked that it was like cooking something slowly over fire to give it more flavor, as opposed to zapping it in the microwave. It's undeniable that the medium of photography today is as speed-obsessed as are all other technologies. How many of us become impatient just waiting for the flash on our compact, five-megapixel digital cameras to charge?
In 1879 photographer and photographer's subject made a commitment to their consensual endeavor, just as a model might agree to sit for a portrait painter. The obsolescence of all visual and recorded media today is ever more rapid. Consider the longevity of a contemporary ink-jet print in comparison to an egg-tempera painting on wood from the Fifteenth Century.
Klett's investigations into the nature of time and change, as extensive as they are, don't preclude him from making interesting pictures. The injection of unexpected elements that throw a scene slightly off kilter prevent his work from being merely didactic. For example, the Desert Artifacts series from the Nineties consists of 40-by-30-inch iris ink-jet prints of manmade detritus found in the landscape. The large scale of these works thrusts the viewer directly into the very pores of a rusted enamel plate, pocked with bullet holes from some desultory target practice. Better still is the melted, misshapen Kris Kristofferson/Rita Coolidge record album stuck on a branch like a huge flower, which resembles Salvador Dali's melted clocks in his infamous Persistence of Memory.