Landscape Photographer Breaks Boundaries

By Hailey Hess

Looking out at the mountaintops of Yosemite, Mark Klett broke the boundaries of landscape photography when he mentally tilted Ansel Adams’ famous photo so it fit like a missing puzzle piece in his own view as he sat at Glacier Point.

Standing 20 feet from where photographers of landscape’s past had stood, Klett began his journey to piece together the history of America’s landscapes.

Klett, a landscape photographer and author whose projects span 40 years, spoke to an audience of experienced photographers, students, friends and historians at the Harry Ransom Center during an interview with curator, Jessica S. McDonald on Thursday night.

“Photographs don’t exist by themselves, but in relationship with each other,” Klett said.

His projects are focused on providing his audience with a landscape’s context and history, which he has done visually with a variety of photographic techniques.

Klett’s work began in 1977, as he, along with partners Ellen Manchester and JoAnne Verburg, were granted governmental funding to retrace a nineteenth century photographic geological survey. The project, titled “Second Views,” aimed to compare landscapes captured over 100 years ago by a team of photographers, including Timothy O’Sullivan, with what they look like now. The team successfully documented 120 of the original sites and presented them side by side with the historic photos, revealing substantial changes in America’s landscape.

“To isolate these things and repeat them, this is the parameter,” Klett said. “Space is repeatable, but time is not.”

“Second Views” led to a personal project for Klett, one in which he used what he learned in second views to capture the effects of men on America’s landscape. “Third Views, Second Sights: A Rephotographic Survey of the American West,” was Klett’s attempt at breaking the barrier between the viewer and the landscape, providing access to landscape photography.

Klett recognized and attempted to address an essential problem in landscape photography. According to Klett, landscape photographers of the past only provided a pretty view to their audience while the places photographed have remained unattainable to the viewer.

“I became the surrogate,” Klett said, referring to his role as a landscape photographer.

Klett has since then experimented with panorama photography, overlaying historical photos with new ones of his own to create a dynamic visual history of a place. He calls it the “embedded panorama” technique.

“Yosemite in Time” was Klett’s first attempt at perfecting this new kind of photographic collage that led to a more extensive 5-year project photographing the Grand Canyon.

“He is more of a chronicler of what’s happening to the world and that’s a kind of photojournalism that I think is critical and not enough people are doing it,” said Stanley Farrar, a photojournalist and Austinite who attended his second event with Klett.

Klett gave a sneak peak of his newest work: “Drowned River, the death and rebirth of Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River.” Arizona’s Glen Canyon Dam blocked the flow of the Colorado River, flooding Glen Canyon and forming Lake Powell. The project surveys the land before and after it was flooded, tells the stories of the canyon and questions its future.

“As a daily photographer I’m documenting this world for people a hundred years from now,” said LBJ Library photographer Jay Godwin. “The way he takes the present and the past in one picture, that’s pretty cool.”

“When you open up the ponderous box of history of the past and dig deeper into what is the history or the story about a place, the narrative line, it has the potential to change your thinking about what that past was and that has the potential to change your thinking about what the present is and the future,” Klett said.

Klett’s photos are available to the public at the Harry Ransom Center on the University of Texas campus.