by Jonathan Blaustein

It’s a magical process, creation. One minute, something doesn’t exist, and then, click, it does. Embedded chemically or digitally, light from the world codifies into an illusion, packed with information. Occasionally, that information is meant to challenge and provoke. Some photographs are hard to look at, intentionally. They capture the essence of brutality or hypocrisy. Think Richard Misrach.

Other times, though, pictures strive to contemplate the sublime: the alluring beauty that reflects our incomprehensible insignificance. Flowers are pretty, but mountains and oceans are sublime. Think Hiroshi Sugimoto. Or William Clift.

I wasn’t familiar with Mr. Clift’s work, though he did beat me out for the Eliot Porter Prize in 2011. (Asshole. Just kidding.) I recently saw his black and white photography exhibition at the New Mexico Museum of Art, and came away extremely impressed. Much as I’m often harping on here about work that pushes towards the political, or the grotesque, these pictures were about nothing more than harnessing the pure power of history and beauty. (Not the sort of thing I normally champion.)

The exhibition, “Shiprock and Mont St. Michel,” was organized by the Phoenix Art Museum, where it was originally shown. It will be on the wall in Santa Fe through September 8th, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone who lives in NM, or is passing through town this summer. Why?

The gelatin silver prints are the photographic equivalent of the perfect soufflΓ©; far easier to consume than to make. (It’s often difficult to appreciate the power of simplicity, masterfully-executed.) Layers of tonality and silky textures. Exquisite shades of gray and upward-jutting land forms. That sort of thing.

Though the two locales seem a bit arbitrary, they exist together simply because that is where Mr. Clift chose to focus his attention over a forty year time horizon. His creativity, his choice. There is a nice Old World, New World balance to the whole endeavor.

While we’ve all seen majestic landscape photos over the years, the images here, made near Shiprock, New Mexico, in the Navajo Nation, indicate a definite point of view. Energy radiates through the rectangle. We feel the essence of a multi-million year time horizon, and the spiritual thoughts that such a landscape engenders over time. Deep beauty, for sure. (And a bit of irony, as Shiprock is a pretty hardcore place. It currently has the 3rd highest poverty rate among the Native American population in the US. Which is saying something.)

The other set of pictures, made on an island off the coast of France, focuses more on man’s mark within the historical continuum. The shock of a Gothic spire spears its way into shadow, multiple times. Architecture and light commingle. The sense of community, of a group of people making descendants over time, comes to the forefront. Again, the prints are extraordinary.

I wanted to highlight this exhibit, because it’s important to remember that there are countless reasons why we make pictures. Despite my freakout six weeks ago, I do believe that no one reason is inherently better than the next. It’s the quality of the vision, and the resulting photographic objects, that keep us engaged, and ready to look. Again. And again.

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  1. I’m afraid I missed your freakout from six weeks ago. Care to elaborate? (Or is there a link?) :)

    • Hi Cynthia,
      I had a bit of a mini-mid-life crisis, after my trip to Europe. Nothing major, but I wrote a column questioning whether we all ought to do a bit more with our creative endeavors. The book in question was by Melissa Catanese, so you can find it in the archive, if you wish.

      Hope all is well.


  2. Dear Jonathan,

    Thanks for your refreshing review. To cross the photographic cultural divide is a sort of accomplishment. Thanks for being willing to cross it with me.


    • Dear Bill,
      Thanks so much for the kind words. It was a real pleasure to get to see your excellent photographs. Congrats on the exhibition.


  3. Long time friend of my husband Kurt Markus Bill Clift is an amazing photographer.
    We have visited his darkroom over the years watching Bill conjure up his magic.
    The man is a perfectionist. Thank you Jonathan for a nice piece on a great

  4. Very impressive work, love the juxtaposition of the two subjects;

  5. “…..I’d highly recommend it to anyone who lives in NM, or is passing through town this summer….”

    Thanks Jonathan. Yes on both counts. To see this exhibit in person is breathtaking. After you catch your breath over Mr. Clift’s sensibilities and fortitude in creating not one, but two amazing collections that sit so elegantly together… you realize you’re looking at the best prints and printing you’ll ever see.

  6. One day while attending a Santa Fe Workshop given by Sam Abell, Leah Ben David -Val and Mim Adkins we all visited William Clift at his studio in town. He talked to us for about two hours about his approach to photography and making books. He then offered to show us some of his work. he carefully adjusted the light, took out his prints, one by one, and then set himself at the perfect viewing distance and studied his print. After a bit he let those who wished assume the position and spot and study the print. He told us that each time he looked at his prints he saw something else to work on. He s a perfectionist, a master teacher, and extraordinarily generous. As one of my co-students said as we left late in the afternoon, ” He is the real deal!”
    Thank you Mr. Clift.

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