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Klett focuses lens on time travel

Photo by Courtesy of the ASU Alumni Magazine

January 18, 2013

As the saying goes, you can’t go home again, but Mark Klett has built a good chunk of his career on returning to the scene of historic sites and providing an update through a technique known as “rephotography.”

According to Klett, a Regents Professor of photography in the ASU School of Art in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, rephotography is a fascinating way to study the intersection of culture, landscape and time.

“I take a photo from an earlier time period, return to the same locale, and create a new photograph of that exact spot,” he explained. “Among the subjects I’ve explored and developed into books are the Yosemite National Park and the site of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.”

Starting out as a geologist, Klett became intrigued by the interaction of people with the land. The American West eventually attracted his attention; a growing interest in this subject led to uncovering photographs taken more than a century ago and triggered the idea of revisiting and recapturing the same sites. Klett was able to fuel this exploration with fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Buhl Foundation, and the Japan/U.S. Friendship Commission.

Utilizing rephotography as an exploratory tool, Klett and his colleagues have created numerous books set in the West during the last 30 years. One of the most popular is Yosemite in Time, which includes a view of Lake Tenaya, where Edward Weston and Ansel Adams made photographic history. Another tome, Half-Life of History, features more than 70 photographs of a secret airbase in Wendover, Nev., where pilots and crews were trained for the mission to drop the atomic bomb that ended World War II.

Klett and his collaborators have taken full advantage of technological advances to enhance their books and exhibits. In his book Third View: Second Sights, which revisits 109 sites in the American West that were originally photographed as part of land surveys, the new photographs are supplemented with recorded interviews and sound effects, as well as videotaped details, such as special artifacts.

These collateral audio/visual gems are captured on an interactive DVD that accompanies the printed book. With the click of a computer mouse, viewers can experience animated walk-arounds in eight western states.

Klett says he feels such technology enhances, rather than threatens, the creative process of photography. “Photography has always been a technology-driven medium,” says Klett. “What I like about the digital process is the facilitation of new ideas.”

Klett’s students say they enjoy the emphasis on fieldwork in his classes. During one assignment, Scott Warren, a doctoral student in ASU’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, traveled to Ajo, Ariz., with student photographer Jason Roehner and Klett. “I trawled historic archives for old photos of Ajo while Jason rephotographed those same locations and put the old and new together,” says Warren. “Mark was both a contributor and an advisor - this is one of his strengths,” says Warren. “Joining us in the field and discussing techniques and ideas, his teaching is participatory.”

Klett said fieldwork was a way for students to better understand the location they were photographing, and that he encouraged work close to the Valley of the Sun, in addition to more far-flung locales. “I feel it is very important to go out with the students and work with them,” he said. “I also want them to become involved with projects that have meaning to communities, both in the Phoenix metro area as well as outlying areas.”

One way in which Klett is encouraging Phoenix-area involvement is through the Phoenix Transect project. It’s an interdisciplinary research project of the School of Art, in which visual artists who work alongside social scientists to explore the changes to the people, natural environments and resources of the metropolitan area.

Working across disciplines is second nature in Klett’s classes; course topics regularly touch upon issues of art, sociology, geography, communications, sustainability and urban planning.

“The cross-disciplinary approach coincides with the university’s efforts to engage students campus-wide in initiatives such as sustainability,” points out Klett. “Many of my colleagues in other fields are quite interested in having their graduate students work across traditional boundaries.”

Students also are quite enthusiastic about the long-term benefits engendered by the interdisciplinary nature of Klett’s class. “I’ve really learned to think creatively about ways to present my work,” says Warren. “The Ajo project was displayed in art galleries.”

Klett’s latest book, Reconstructing the View: The Grand Canyon Photographs of Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe, came out in October 2012. The work is a change of pace for Klett and his co-author, as it examines a natural wonder that is far less changed than many of the sites he has previously examined.

“Cities are in a constant state of change; even a year can make a difference,” said Klett. However, at the Grand Canyon, “the span of 100 years is hardly a blink in geological time.”

“Comparing historic photographs of the Canyon to the present day view demands that one looks for minute changes that are hardly visible,” he noted. ”However, we’re most interested in how people’s perceptions of this iconic site have changed as reflected by popular art and photography.”

Oriana Parker is a Scottsdale-based arts writer. This article appeared in the December 2012 issue of the ASU Alumni Magazine.

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