Mark Klett didn't go to college for photography. Taking pictures was a nice hobby, a thing to do on the side. But science — specifically geology — was how he expected to make his living.
Nearly four decades later, he comes to The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky as part of its Robert C. May Photography Endowment Lecture Series.
Klett might have been a little surprised that he ended up with a career in photography, but his subject matter isn't surprising at all.
When he started graduate school in photography at the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, N.Y., Klett says, "I didn't know what the art of photography was about, what the field was all about, the current dialogues or the art of photography. I didn't think much about landscape photography. I really thought it was boring."
But in the summertime, he worked for the U.S. Geological Survey, which took him to Montana and Wyoming and got him thinking about landscapes.
What he came to understand was that landscape photography was not just about aiming his lens at a rock or a tree. It was choices about light and perspective that separated snapshots from photographs.
"I tell my students all the time that landscape photography would seem to be a sort of neutral subject, and that's why I found it boring, initially — a rock and a tree and this and that and so what?," Klett says. "But then I learned that photographs were actually the result of someone's decision-making, and that they had a purpose, and that they were reflections of an opinion, and they were a little more like editorial statements. That's when it got interesting to me."
One of his first serious forays was essentially trying to see through the eyes and lenses of some of the original masters of landscape photography, notably Ansel Adams.
The project was to study iconic photos of the American West, in many cases figure out what they were and where they were taken, and replicate them.
"I heard about these guys that were interested in rephotographing these 19th-century pictures to see what had changed," Klett says. "I knew a little bit about the history of photography by then and knew there were a lot of interesting pictures out there, and to try to go back and rephotograph them standing in the same place would be really interesting."
He ended up working with photographer and historian Ellen Manchester and writer JoAnn Verburg. Their project, financed by the National Endowment for the Arts, was to reshoot many of the first photos of the American West from the same position with the same lighting. That resulted in a book, Second View: The Rephotographic Survey Project, published in 1984.
"Really, what I was doing was studying landscape from the historic photographs of the 19th century," Klett says of the three-year project. "It was kind of like the old days when people would go to a museum with an easel and paint and try to repaint the masters. I was learning: Why did they photograph this instead of that, and how did they do it? What kind of lens did they use, and how did they frame it? I got a lot of training."
Klett's work has continued in that vein, and what visitors to the Art Museum will see and those at Friday's lecture will hear about is a project with former student Byron Wolfe that is made possible by digital photo processing.
"That engendered ideas like, if we could put an image on a piece of paper, we could also put another image on the same piece of paper — maybe an image from the 19th century," Klett says. "So now, on the same document, we could put two pictures, one that we made and something that was made 100 years ago and merged together in one image.
"That was something that was hard to think about before digital because you would have to take the two separate images and scale them and do all sorts of things that made it hard to visualize. The tools allowed us to think about what were doing. We just started experimenting with new technology to collapse space and time and make one document, which is something we could never do before."
The images show the progress of time and photography — a highway cutting through a colorful mountain vista, interrupted by the historical black-and-white image of that untouched landscape more than 100 years ago; a green landscape with a snapshot of its more open profile before vegetation took hold.
The work has taken Klett and his collaborators deep into exploring the land, even if it's not quite the way he thought he would investigate the landscape.