Any photographer can take a pretty picture of a place, but William Clift sees its timeless soul. One such place is Mont St. Michel, a tidal island connected at low tide to the coast of Normandy, France. Another is Shiprock, a towering rock formation on the Navajo reservation in northwest New Mexico. If you doubt that places have a soul, you may change your mind after seeing the exhibition Shiprock and Mont St. Michel: Photographs by William Clift, which opens on Friday, April 19, at the New Mexico Museum of Art. The show was organized by the Phoenix Art Museum, where it opened in December.
For more than a millennium, Mont St. Michel has attracted pilgrims and visitors who risked the tides to reach the monastery and abbey church built on the rocky island where Romanesque and Gothic architecture rises above the flat surroundings like a vision. The causeway linking Mont St. Michel and the mainland is accessible, though it has not always been easily traversed. “There’s quicksand,” Clift said. “People die in the sands around Mont. St. Michel, just sink down into the ground and disappear.” Mont St. Michel’s official website warns of the extreme danger of the bay surrounding the site. The island is a destination, the more so because, on a clear day, you’ll have it in your sights long before you reach it. Clift’s photographs, as presented in the exhibition, offer a chance to experience the approach first and then utter immersion into a place of mystery and beauty. His recent book, Mont St. Michel and Shiprock (published by The Pearmain Press), is arranged similarly. First, we see the tidal sands, then a selection of shots from a distance. We look through the mists as if peering through time. It’s an old place. While its population is less than a hundred, the site draws a staggering number of visitors annually and is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. “It was interesting photographing Mont St. Michel, because two or three million people go there every year,” Clift said. “Two or three million people take their camera every year. From almost any one spot that I take a picture from, that spot has been photographed by millions of people. I’m not doing anything different than what they did. I’m not trying to be original or creative. I’ve done a lot of looking. Much of what I find as experience in these two places may be common to many people.”
If there’s a spiritual quality in Clift’s photographs, it is rooted in his engagement with place. “The spiritual so often has to do with being good, being quiet, and being meditative. I’m not a meditative person. I go out and work hard, mostly by carrying equipment. I don’t take many pictures; I might take two in a day. I don’t wait for the right light. I look, digest and, every once in a while, my camera goes up on the tripod and I take a picture. I’m just walking and looking, and there’s no particular spiritual aspect to that.”
The human response to the monumental — whether manmade, as with the buildings at Mont St. Michel, or natural, as at Shiprock — is one of awe. The terrain around Shiprock is also fraught with danger. It is rugged and rocky. One suspects it takes a person of reasonable health and ability to reach and photograph Shiprock from the vantage points seen in Clift’s images. Clift captures a sense of light and dark, not just as tonal ranges but also in a more subjective way. “We have both sides in ourselves, as all human beings have, and those two places represent those sides.”
Clift’s book avoids wordy narratives, letting the images describe and inflect. In that sense they’re impressionistic. In concert with the images in the book is a selection of poems by Paul Kane, who traveled to these places as well — at times independently and at times with Clift. He uses words to evoke their visceral power. The design by Eleanor Morris Caponigro allows Kane his own space in the tome. The poems are placed toward the back, alongside a selection of smaller images. Reading the poems can deepen the experience because we are given two visions instead of one. Each reflects the other, but that is not the result of a deliberate attempt at convergence; it is governed more by similarities in the way Clift and Kane were moved by these places.
For Clift, part of what drew him to Shiprock and Mont St. Michel, beginning in the early 1970s, was what they offered photographically. “One of the reasons that I kept working with these places over so long a period of time was that I could keep going back and keep discovering more. Many times photographers work with a place for a little while and then go to another place, then another place. But both of these subjects offered enormous amounts of visual variety and visual material to keep trying to go deeper and deeper into. That’s exciting, because you don’t have to keep wandering, looking for another subject.”
Clift and Caponigro avoid a side-by-side comparison in the book’s design, preferring to give each location a spread of its own. As with Kane’s observant poems, convergences present themselves without the need for a heavy-handed approach, something Clift hopes to avoid in the museum presentation, as well, by not arranging the images in such a way as to invite comparisons. The sea and the desert are a source of life and death. “There are resemblances and ties between the two places, and there are a lot of differences. I think almost anybody from any culture around the world has to be affected by those two places. They have to be. It doesn’t matter how you’re educated. It doesn’t matter what your beliefs are. One has to be affected.” ◀
▼ Shiprock and Mont St. Michel: Photographs by William Clift
▼ Opening reception 5:30 p.m. Friday, April 19; through Sept. 8
▼ New Mexico Museum of Art, 107 W. Palace. Ave., 476-5072
▼ By museum admission (no charge Fridays from 5 to 8 p.m.)