A closet-sized basement room isn't where you expect to find an artist at work. But photographer Mark Klett's office, layered with storage boxes and equipment, is like the artist himself: no frills, jam-packed with knowledge, not trying to be anything it's not.
Klett, a professor at Arizona State University's Herberger College School of Art, has authored 13 books, and his photographs - primarily originals and "re-photographs" of landscapes - are collected worldwide.
His work is on permanent display in museums in Tokyo, London and Amsterdam, and he's received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. This year, Klett received a Governor's Arts Award for his contribution to the arts in Arizona.
A recent morning finds the one-time geologist with a point-and-shoot digital camera strapped to his belt. His tan has been earned through time spent outdoors, and something about him seems as earthy as the Western expanses he photographs.
Q: You went to college to study geology. How did you become a photographer?
A: When I was in high school, one of my friends had a little darkroom in his house, and I thought watching a print develop in a tray was just great. And my mother happened to be looking for a way to keep her teenage son out of trouble.
When I went to college, a lot of the geologists and people I worked with were also interested in photography. We taught ourselves, and we would toss in a few bucks to have people come and speak to us and teach us about photography. When I had to make a decision about graduate school, the transition from one into the other seemed to work nicely.
Q: You lived and studied in New York. Why have you grown up to photograph so much of the West?
A: I came out West a lot as a kid because my mother was from California. ... Later, working with the U.S. Geological Survey, I worked in North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming. This idea of re-photograpy of sites originally photographed by 19th-century survey photographers brought me back again. I lived in Colorado and Idaho. I loved Idaho. I’d probably still be there if that project hadn’t closed its doors. But I needed a job, and ASU hired me as a printer technician.
Q: Has Tempe proven a good place to be a photographer?
A: Coming from the East originally and going to the mountains, then coming down here to the desert was an adjustment, but it was easy for me because I love landscape. I don’t think I could live without the desert anymore; I just love the desert. It’s a good mix if you’re a landscape photographer.
Q: What are you most interested in photographing?
A: My interest is in where land and culture and time collide. When people interact with a place over a period of time, there’s this layering that occurs that gets kind of exciting. But I am getting more and more interested in the time component of it, maybe because I’m getting older.
Q: What makes a photograph more than a record of its subject? What makes it art?
A: A document is something you can make that tries to record a scene. Many times as photographers, we do want to document. But it’s impossible to make a photograph that doesn’t indicate something about its maker.
The difference between being an artist and being a pure documentarian is that we’re not afraid to make a statement about overlooking that. In fact, art is a statement. The fact that I would make a picture and not shy away from also making a point of view is critical. Photography isn’t simply showing or recording something; it’s a way of communicating an idea.
Q: You make a point to take a picture every day. What do you photograph?
A: My rule is that I can take a picture of anything; I just have to do it every day. Sometimes it gets to be a little bit of a chore. Last night at about 11 o’clock, I thought: “Oh! I haven’t taken a picture today!” and I had to run around trying to get a picture.
Q: What do you do with all those pictures?
A: They’re in a database, and of course now I have so many that it’s daunting. I’m not sure what I’ll do with them. ... What I think I want to do is look at patterns of pictures. Probably with 99 percent of the pictures, nothing will happen, but I may get together groups of images that have to do with a concept or a theme or just the passage of time.
Q: Do you recall the first photo you took that made you think: “Wow”?
A: The first photo? No, but my uncle gave me a camera. (It) was a Speed Graphic, an old 4-by-5 press camera that my uncle liberated from the Navy circa (the) 1940s. It was the type of camera that the old newspaper photographers … used to use on the street. I started making pictures with it when I was about 16, and the large negatives were really impressive. It got me serious about photography.
Q: Do you ever have photographer’s block?
A: Do you mean like where I don’t know what to do next? I think there are times when there’s not much happening, times when I feel like I’m treading water. I think it’s part of the cycle, and you just have to keep working through it until you find something. That’s happened to me a couple different times, and I think it’ll happen again. Right now, I’m in a really good productive period, and part of the reason for that is that I’m working collaboratively.
Q: What would you love to photograph that you haven’t already?
A: Part of me would like to go somewhere else and photograph, but when I go somewhere foreign, I feel too much like a visitor, like I take a step back. But the other part of me — you know, one of my ongoing projects is to make images based on historic pictures, and the people whose pictures we tend to use are dead. I’d love to re-work some of my colleagues’ photos, some of my contemporaries’ work from the ’80s and ’90s. But I don’t think they’d let me. It might feel too personal at this point. And I wouldn’t mean to do it in any sort of critical way; I just think it would be interesting.
Q: Do you have a favorite image that’s not your own?
A: “The Fall of Icarus” by Pieter Bruegel is among my favorites. It’s a 14th-century painting, and I use it in my classes as an example of what landscape photography can do. You look at this painting, and your eye follows this guy with his horse, and there are some sheep, and the motion of the painting leads you along. It’s not until you work your way all the way around that you notice Icarus. His legs are sticking out of the water and there are a few feathers floating in the air. This is the subject of the painting, and it occupies maybe 1 percent of the picture space. Here’s this momentous event, and nobody’s paying attention. That’s a statement. The way it leads your eye and develops meaning, the level of sophistication and what it’s conveying — it’s a model for my own work.