Photographer Mark Klett captures the impact of time and people on the Western landscape
Arizona has some of the country’s most iconic scenery. From the towering buttes of Monument Valley to the wavelike sandstone swirls of Vermilion Cliffs National Monument to the seemingly endless peaks and plateaus of the Grand Canyon, the state is filled with epic sites that inspired such great lensmen as Edward Curtis, Ansel Adams, and Emory and Elsworth Kolb. But there’s one modern-day photographer whose work rivals that of the legends in terms of its scope and importance: Tempe-based Mark Klett.
“Mark’s personality is such that he would never say this, but he’s kind of a big deal,” says Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award-winning gallerist Lisa Sette, who has represented the artist for more than 35 years.
For four decades, Klett has redefined the art of landscape photography. His images link geography, history and the mythology of the American West. “I don’t like to use the moniker ‘landscape photographer’ because it conjures up too many preconceptions in people’s minds of beautiful sunsets and desert views, and that’s not what holds my attention,” Klett explains. “I’m interested as much in time as I am in place. Yes, a large portion of my work involves Arizona and the desert, but it’s almost always places where there’s been some form of interaction between people and the land. I tend to chronicle that relationship and its ups and downs over long periods of time.”
Klett, who studied geology in college, got his start in the business taking photographs for the U.S. Geological Survey. “The thing I love about geology is when you look at the land, you can see the rock and what materials comprise each form. You get a sense of what it took to make something and why it looks the way it does,” he says.
In 1977, he embarked on a three-years-long project that duplicated 120 19th-century historical images of Western states. The enterprise painstakingly matched the time of year and framing of the image, and even used the same camera and lens positions, revealing the impact of modernization on the land. Klett dubbed the style “rephotography.” A number of his subsequent projects continued the concept of remaking historical photos, and the juxtaposition of past and present has become one of his specialties, with many works showcasing multiple exposures of the same scenery, taken decades or even centuries apart and layered on top of each other to highlight an often-concerning evolution.
“Mark’s work speaks about the human occupation of the land over 100 or 150 years,” Sette remarks. “What he’s comparing is where we are treading and how lightly. Because he was trained as a geologist, he understands the evidence of people’s impact on the landscape.”
In 1982, Klett moved to Arizona, following a job offer from Arizona State University. “I didn’t know if I could handle this place or not,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘I’ll give it six weeks.’ Then that became six months, and it just kind of went on from there.” He’s now a Regent’s Professor, teaching photography and digital printing mainly to seniors and graduate students.
“I also fell in love with the desert,” he adds. “I didn’t know anything about it when I first moved here, but I started getting out a lot and learning. Now I can’t imagine not having access to the desert. It’s just so important to me.”
Using a high-end medium-format system that includes multiple digital camera bodies and an interchangeable back, Klett shoots in both color and black and white. “In terms of what landscape photography traditionally has tried to do, which is to describe the terrain in real detail, the quality is really there in digital,” he says.
The resulting images are extraordinarily detailed, intimate glimpses of a sometimes barren and frequently hostile environment. These aren’t your typical radiantly hued scenes that dominate magazines and social media. Their beauty is found in the personal connection between the viewer and the subject, whether it’s a dusty trail on the El Camino del Diablo, a remote route in southern Arizona known for its arid—and deadly—terrain, or the receding coastline of Lake Powell.
“Mark’s photos can be a little hard to identify with initially because they don’t have the super-saturated colors or the lushness that some Arizona landscape photography does. But if you spend time with them, the interjection of the human experience makes them more accessible because it invites engagement, contemplation and a reflection that scenic photography sometimes doesn’t do,” says Rebecca Senf, chief curator for Tucson’s Center for Creative Photography. The institution boasts close to 200 of Klett’s images in its permanent collection.
One series that resonates with the public is his portraits of saguaros. In 2007, he produced a book of black-and-white images of the statuesque cacti, and a few years ago, he began photographing the desert flora in color. Each image captures a single plant. “I call them portraits, because I try to shoot a full frontal, where you view the entire cactus,” he notes. When printed large-scale, the photos take on a dignified character. “The O’odham Native Americans saw saguaros as people, as their ancestors, so I take them seriously,” Klett adds.
For Senf, the portraits are a compelling body of work. “People who love saguaros appreciate the ancient quality that they have,” she says. “The amount of attention that Mark pays to each cactus comes through in the photographs. It makes me slow down and really pay attention.”
That interpretation is exactly what Klett hopes viewers will take from his art. “Landscape photography is not just a picture,” he explains. “It’s a picture in time. “If I can get someone to understand a little bit differently what it’s like to live life in the Southwest and acknowledge the rhythms and things that have happened, then that’s a good thing.”
Seeing Time: 40 Years of Photographs
During his 40-year career, Mark Klett has amassed an impressive portfolio of images. With 17 books under his belt, each one showcasing a specific project, and numerous other ventures yet unpublished, it was only a matter of time before someone saw fit to consolidate the collection into a single volume.
“Seeing Time,” a 480-page retrospective that took three years to complete, chronicles Klett’s 40-plus year career, dating from the early rephotographic assignments in the late 1970s to current days, and includes black-and-white snapshots of friends; studies of the Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Park; and portraits of saguaros that span 30 years. Many photos have never been seen before. “It features 13 projects and more than 300 plates, organized chronologically,” Klett says. “And there are a lot of essays in it, including three by really great museum curators.”
One author is Rebecca Senf, chief curator at the Center for Creative Photography. “This book presents a lot of ideas bound up with really compelling visual images,” she says. “People might be attracted to the strength and quality of the pictures themselves, but they’ll see that there is a depth behind them and they’ll be engaged by how much intellectual rigor they find. It’s a pleasurable experience to be drawn to a photograph because of what it looks like and then to be able to go deep into it because of the photographer’s intentions.”
Rise and Shine
We all know that the sun rises in the East, but its bearing, which is determined by latitude and time of year, changes daily. For Mark Klett, predicting the exact spot where the sun would first peek above the horizon was part of a game he and his companions would play while camping.
At night, a circle about 6 feet in diameter is scraped into the ground and a stick is placed in the center. Players then put markers onto the circle in the exact spot they think the sun will cast the first shadow of the stick in the morning,” he explains. Klett called the friendly competition the “Sunrise Stick Game.”
Initially, Klett would throw the sticks away, but in the late 1990s he began carving them and adorning them with objects he would find in the desert. There are cholla cactus skeletons and seed pods, bullet casings and bottle caps, colorful sand-worn glass and tiny figurines. Some sticks are kinetic; others are noise-makers. Each tells a story about humans’ interaction with the natural surroundings. “One of the sticks has a can on top of it, and inside is a little medallion. The can was found at a spot where a migrant died,” Klett remarks. “I found out what his name was. The medallion was just a little thing that he had on him. So the stick is kind of a memorial to him.”
Over the years, Klett has crafted hundreds of these artifacts, many of which decorate a wall in his home studio. “The pieces have a folk art element to them,” notes gallery owner Lisa Sette. “It’s amazing how Mark can take these discarded objects that people are just going to walk over and breathe new life into them.”