New York

Mark Klett

Pace/MacGill Gallery

The great landscape photographs made by Timothy O’Sullivan, A. J. Russell, and others on the expeditions that explored the American West after the Civil War revealed a desolate, awesomely beautiful land. The West depicted in these densely detailed images was a place of breathtaking panoramas, of huge, grotesquely misshapen boulders, of implausibly dramatic geological formations; it was a land that seemed to certify the Romantic idea of nature as a repository of transcendental forces locked in chthonic struggle. In a sense these photographs could be taken as proof of the very assumptions that underlay their esthetic.

It’s not surprising that Mark Klett should adopt the style of these images in his large black and white Western landscapes; in the late ’70s Klett was chief photographer on a project to remake many of the survey photographs taken by those 19th-century photographers, from exactly the same spots and using the same equipment. The results of that project are fascinating, revealing not only how the land has changed in the intervening century, but also the kinds of choices the earlier photographers would make—some would set up their cameras close to the trail, for example, while others would trek over mountains to get their views.

In the work shown here Klett borrows many stylistic devices from those photographers, including the concentration on spectacular geological formations (he is a trained geologist) and the inclusion of people to provide a sense of the overwhelming scale of the scenes. Predictably, though, his pictures again prove the photographic version of the Heraclitean dictum: you can’t take the same photograph twice. Despite their close stylistic parallels with the earlier work, Klett’s photographs inevitably offer a contemporary view of landscape—not as a primeval region in which the unbridled forces of nature hold sway, but as an area in which the mundanity of civilization is juxtaposed with topology that has come to signify more the human yearning for transcendence than anything more literally exalted.

Klett skillfully presents both sides of this double reference—not only the Western landscapes as they exist today, with such unavoidable details of late-20th-century life as cars, backpacks, drainage pipes, and speedboats intruding into them, but also the landscapes as the embodiment of ideals that have been discredited and abandoned, but which haven’t been replaced by anything else. Frequently, in fact, Klett will not only include contemporary objects in his pictures to establish ironic contrasts with these doubly old landscapes—historically old, because we know them through their representation in 19th-century photographs, but old beyond history as well—but will also present contemporary figures in these settings. Thus in Ellen above the Green River: where O’Sullivan stood over 100 years ago 8/26/80 (Klett scrawls his titles in silver ink across the bottom of his prints), a young woman in hiking shorts stands on a promontory overlooking a stunning vista, in a recreation both of a 19th-century view and of its Romantic pictorial template. But the young woman is a figure from the work of neither O’Sullivan nor Caspar David Friedrich. She is one of us; in Klett’s photograph she is trying on the role of surveyor (with all that the word connotes) that was implicit both in the exploration and settlement of the American West and in the Romantic tradition of landscape. But we bring to the same scene our sense of history, of boundedness, of responsibility. The titanic forces are now in us, not in nature conceived of as outside ourselves. Klett shows us the 20th century looking with yearning not at the landscape, but at its lost image. It is as though we were looking through an album of photographs of long-dead, deeply loved relatives.

Charles Hagen