Shiprock and Mont St. Michel

Similar Differences


A longtime resident of New Mexico, photographer William Clift has returned again and again to two monolithic sites that dominate their expansive landscapes: Shiprock, an eroded volcanic form that rises above the northwestern New Mexico desert and is sacred to the Navajos (Diné); and Mont St. Michel, a tidal island off the north coast of France that is famous for its Romanesque-Gothic church and monastery. These bodies of work are brought together in the exhibition Shiprock and Mont St. Michel: Photographs by William Clift, on view at the New Mexico Museum of Art through September 8, 2013, and an accompanying book published by Pearmain Press. This exhibition will travel to other museums through 2017. New Mexico Museum of Art curator of photography Katherine Ware and William Clift sat down in Clift’s Santa Fe studio to discuss the exhibition.

Ware: This exhibition and book are the first time you’ve shown such an extensive selection of the Shiprock and Mont St. Michel pictures and shown them together. I know you said that a small grouping of the Mont St. Michel pictures have been exhibited previously at Mont St. Michel itself and at St. Michael’s College in Vermont, but the selection in the present show is larger and the size of the prints more varied. At what point did you decide to show the French pictures alongside the Shiprock pictures?

Clift: The first time was in 1978 —but then only two images. At a certain point photographing the two sites became a passion — not with the aim of making commensurate photographs. I knew that they would fit together well enough, but the result was never intended to be “tit for tat,” two pointy places next to each other. I knew there were things within both places that attracted me deeply, that I really needed to explore, so with no particular idea of the form it would take I simply photographed.

In the early 1980s I thought of these photographs as a possible book. I had a mock-up that I started about twenty years ago, and it was in a spring binder so you could keep moving the pages around. My wife, Vida, our kids, and I played with the sequence, and it was constantly changing, constantly evolving. And we kept Shiprock and Mont St. Michel separate, though there were a few places where we put them together. Looking back, I see that playing with the arrangement with such freedom had an effect on me subliminally. I could see what kind of experience was there, what was superficial or repetitious, what was not full enough. So whenever I went back to photograph, those impressions played into my subsequent work.

Ware: Now that the book has been published, how does it feel to have the pictures fixed in place?

Clift: It is exciting for me to have the book now in its finished form. Eleanor Caponigro, who designed it, created a visual progression from one subject to the other that stirs the feelings. She and I sequenced the photographs for the show at the Museum of Art but the arrangement has a different quality than the book. And because every museum’s exhibition space is different, the exhibitions in different museums will remain an adventure, not fixed as yet, and an ongoing chapter in our long collaboration.

Ware: It’s a gorgeous book and obviously something assembled with great care. When I got the advance copy and showed it to people at the museum, no one had anything to say after looking at it. These are highly opinionated, professionally critical folks! After I looked at it again, I realized that, at least for me, the book is such an experience, a journey. It’s difficult to articulate the complexity of a journey while you are still on it, and once you are no longer on it the spell is broken, and then you are outside of it. Words are not a useful response to this publication, they don’t …

Clift: … even apply.

Ware: It’s a multisensory experience. I wasn’t using only my eyes. Some of those pictures I could just about taste. They were that palpable.

Clift: It’s not just visuals. And the pictures are engaging to one’s inner world, not just the physical senses. The thing that surprises me is that if it wasn’t for putting this book together in this way, if I had not done this, the pictures would be like a bunch of pot shards, as opposed to a whole pot. How Eleanor has done it has helped me enormously. The act of putting it together has raised the level of this body of work.

Ware: That’s part of why I enjoy working on exhibitions; it becomes a very synergistic enterprise, in which everybody plays a part, and it makes something.

Clift: Something bigger than each of us.

Ware: You’ve said that the pictures in the show and the book are not really landscape photographs, and they are not about architecture. So what are they about?

Clift: The book and the show are not about landscape or architecture. The pictures are about something else, and that’s for each person to see for himself.

Ware: Photography tends to be such a descriptive medium, but you’re not taking a picture of just what’s in front of the camera — that’s not the point.

Clift: It’s not primarily about a sense of place. Both Mont St. Michel and Shiprock are archetypes. Anybody who goes there is affected, anybody. It doesn’t matter what they know or don’t know.

Ware: I like the idea of you probing around the layers of existence that have gone on in both of these places over a long period of time, as people have been attracted to them.

Clift: Well, certainly some of the work I’ve done in the past has involved architecture — a series of courthouses, various commissions, and even Mont St. Michel — I’ve been particularly interested in the atmosphere left by the great variety of people who have worked there and had occasion to use them. In the same way, some landscapes have an imprint of human response, and I’m not talking about trash, graffiti, or even roads. Courthouses have more evidence, the dirt and patina, but a place like Shiprock has little. Though Shiprock was built by natural forces, not human hands, it resounds within our humanity.

Ware: Talk about trying to photograph something that’s invisible!

Clift: Photographs do describe the facts in front of them, but there are “facts” of a different nature that are below the ones described by the surface. These are facts of experience, of a subtler emotional, intellectual nature. Those are the aims of digging deeper when photographing and making prints that resonate.

Ware: If a photograph is essentially an accretion of details, how can it offer or contain this other experience you’re talking about? You’re visiting these places and spending time in them and taking pictures, but how does that turn into something that makes an opportunity for an experience beyond words?

Clift: I have no idea. I go out and … I am not a facile photographer. I don’t know how to make a good picture; I don’t know how to make a picture that someone else would like. I barely know how to make a picture that I would like. Somebody once said about me that my saving grace is that I don’t know what I am doing.

Ware: I know you’ve said that your way of working is mostly to show up, walk around, be there, do the work.

Clift: But never waiting, that’s important. There’s an impression about landscape photographers that they wait for the right light. How the hell am I supposed to know what the right light is? For me, there’s no waiting going on. I’m out there taking things in and not really defining what I am taking in. But there are experiences, and I find something that I’m interested in and then sometimes work with it for a period of ten years or more. And then, all of a sudden, I am out there one day and it comes together in me without my thinking about it. Without thinking about the edges, without thinking about how to make the picture. It’s all there.

For instance, in coming back to Shiprock over thirty, forty years, there are certain impressions that have moved me, but it’s hard to define exactly what that is. So I stick up my camera every once in a while because I’ve noted a certain quality that affects me. But often there’s something dead in the picture, and when that’s the case, what’s dead is in me, not the place.

Ware: From that, I would expect the images to be personal. But while they feel extremely intimate, they don’t seem personal, not about you.

Clift: Well, you know people say to me, “There aren’t any people in your pictures.” And my response is to say that these pictures are often more human than photographs with people. I can’t defend it, but I believe it to be true. Having that human quality in the picture is different from having me in the picture. It’s not self-expression.

Ware: We’ve been talking about what the pictures are not, but this gets at what they are.

Clift: For me, photography is about mystery, not facts. We take in too much information these days, and we deny ourselves the possibility of real knowing because of that. People need to do their own work in looking and not be told how to look. If you tell them how to look you take something away from them.

I am often aware of a commonality that I share with the many people who visit Mont St. Michel. It has probably been photographed more than any other place in France. Two or three million people visit Mont St. Michel each year. People want to remember the place and their experiences, and their photographs then become souvenirs. My endeavor is to convey my experiences through the photographs, which are really very straightforward, nothing particularly creative, just an expression of a direct experience — the same as any person might have — raising the camera and pressing the shutter. The desire to photograph that experience is common, but the expression of that experience is dependent on years of practiced looking and printing and the desire to get at the meat of the experience. My work is the result of repeated visits and time, when things have been allowed to cook more slowly, and of pondering the work. The negative then becomes the diving board to enter the world of the print, which has to correspond and heighten that experience until it arrives as a rich and full result. It is not intended as a final statement, but, hopefully, compels the viewer to take it further into their own world.

The traveling exhibition Shiprock and Mont St. Michel: Photographs by William Clift is organized by Phoenix Art Museum. Its showing at the New Mexico Museum of Art is presented through the generosity of donors to the New Mexico Museum of Art’s Director’s Leadership Fund and Exhibitions Development Fund. The accompanying book, Mont St. Michel and Shiprock: Photographs by William Clift, is published by Pearmain Press of Santa Fe, and is available at the museum and through the press (