An Interview with Photographer William Clift

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William Clift, Shadow, Sandbar, Mont St. Michel (1982), gelatin silver print, 18.6 x 23.9 cm (image). NGC. Purchased 1993 with a contribution from Mr. and Mrs. Paul S. Price, Toronto

If you happen to be passing through New Mexico this summer—and you’re anywhere near Santa Fe—be sure to visit Mont St. Michel and Shiprock, on view at the New Mexico Museum of Art (titled Shiprock and Mont St. Michel: Photographs by William Clift at this venue only) until 8 September 2013. The solo exhibition features the iconic black-and-white photographs of renowned American landscape photographer William Clift.

For close to 40 years, Clift has captured the landscapes of Shiprock, New Mexico (in the Navajo nation) and Mont St. Michel, a tidal island off the northern coast of France. The exhibition’s selection of gelatin silver prints showcases Clift’s ongoing exploration of both places.

Born in Boston in 1944, Clift started taking pictures at the age of ten, developing them himself in a darkroom. He took his first photography workshop with Paul Caponigro at fifteen, becoming the youngest member of the Association of Heliographers: a New York cooperative established by some of the most influential American art photographers of the 1960s, including Walter Chappell, Paul Caponigro, Marie Cosindas and Carl Chiarenza. Since 1971, Clift—whose work is also part of the NGC collection—has resided in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his family.

Mont St. Michel and Shiprock is accompanied by a book containing over 130 plates, designed by Eleanor Caponigro, with poems by American poet Paul Kane. spoke recently with the photographer about his exhibition and his process.

NGCM: You’ve devoted nearly 40 years to photographing Mont Saint-Michel and the Shiprock landscape. When you began photographing these monolithic sites in 1973, did you immediately sense a connection between the two places, or did the photos evolve into a linked series over time? Which site did you photograph first?

WC: I moved to New Mexico in 1971. Photographing the landscape world here was a halting effort at best. It took a long time to discover imagery, as well as the making of prints that reflected a growing insight into what it was that affected me.

My first trip to Shiprock was in 1973. I made three or four pictures—most of which I did not print, or print well—until recently. So it went. 

My first trip to Mont St. Michel was in 1977. We spent six weeks there that spring. Much of that time was spent trying to obtain permission to use a tripod, and to be able to roam the place freely. And so it went again: slow discovery and slow, haphazard results in the darkroom.

Shortly after that, in 1978, I had two pictures, both 16 x 20 prints, that worked very well together—a strong combination of experiences that fed off of one another. So I suppose that was the conception moment, though I only off-and-on took it seriously.


NGCM: From your photos, one wouldn’t guess that Mont Saint-Michel teems with three million visitors per year. There is an otherworldly and sometimes lonely quality to your pictures of this site, similar in mood to your uninhabited photographs of Shiprock. How different was the experience of photographing such varying natural landscapes—one an eroded volcanic rock formation rising from the desert; the other a manmade monument surrounded by sand and sea?

WC: Photographing each place was similar. Yes, people abounded at Mont St. Michel. However, winter, spring and fall had reduced crowds, and on a daily basis the buses arrive and disappear and then it is quiet. I was always interested in the people there. They never disturbed. As an experience, it always fed into my general absorption of the place, even if I only made sporadic images of the people. 

Photographing each place was exactly the same, though in different conditions. To me, they are both structures in a desert landscape, both aspirational in nature. One cannot help but be affected by such presences. 

The principal difference between the places lies in the chocolate crêpes that are offered at Mont St. Michel, while at Shiprock one needs and wants water.

NGCM: Did you return to Shiprock and Mont Saint-Michel to capture a specific season, or did you set up at certain times of day with a particular light in mind? Or did you revisit at random, and wait for what came?

WC: Photography is a discovery process. I bring with me as few preconceptions as possible. At Mont St. Michel I did avoid the summer onslaught of tourists, while at Shiprock I did not distinguish much between seasons; though I tended to enjoy it most when there were few clouds.

I am not much interested in providing a sense of place primarily. More important was the idea of working with my actual experience and then seeing, sometimes in an instant, a way to express that. I never wait for the “right” light. Any light can provide an experience, if I am alive enough to see something special in that condition.

NGCM: You’ve spent nearly half your life making pilgrimages to Shiprock and Mont Saint-Michel. How does spirituality come into play in your photography, and your interactions with both places?

WC: I tend to avoid the word “spirituality.” People have too many associations with it that may not be the same as mine. Better, perhaps, to consider my aim as one of defining and expressing an experience that all people must feel at such places, including all the aspects of that.

One wonderful thing in these places is that these aspects are multitudinous. So, over the years, I could keep returning to work, and work with material that I loved, but without sentimentality.

NGCM: With which site do you have more of a connection after all these years? How has your interpretation of these visual subjects evolved since the seventies?

WC: There was a lot in between. Three or four or five other major projects—so that here and there no trips were made. My connection to Mont St. Michel or to Shiprock was equal. In between trips I printed. In between trips I looked. Then I’m there, and have to work once again as freshly in myself as possible.

There is an effort overall not to do too much interpreting, or to be too “creative”. My style of working and seeing has remained about the same. Looking at the pictures in my book Mont St. Michel and Shiprock, one cannot tell from the pictures which are older and which are more recent.

NGCM: What is your working process? Do you have a daily routine, or does it vary depending on the time of year? How much time do you spend shooting, versus time in the darkroom? Have you used the same camera all these years?

WC: Not much is regular in my life, though I do go to my studio every day when in Santa Fe. Less time is spent taking pictures, and much, much more in the dark or looking and casting glances at a print on the wall to see if there is anything to it, or do I need to be not so quick. Let it sit, maybe another year or decade. Once in a while a quick print, a guessed exposure, a guessed paper choice, all of a sudden something wonderful—or, no, return to try again.

I use many cameras from 8 x 10 to 5 x 7 to 4 x 5 to medium format, to 35 mm. I am not a traditionalist, although I do enjoy film and the fact that I get to hold the negative in my hand, actual and present in front of me. One thing that has been quite consistent over the years: I am often accompanied on these trips by family members or a friend, or in the case of this project, a few visits together with Paul Kane who wrote the poems which are included in the book. All were influences on me indirectly during the picturing process. And then with all the pictures and poems in hand, the designer and editor of the book—Eleanor Caponigro—made the single greatest contribution to the success of this project, making sense of it as a whole.

NGCM: I’ve heard that you’re extremely picky when it comes to showing your gelatin silver prints as “final” finished works. It took you four decades to have a hundred and some photos to exhibit and assemble in book form. It’s an interesting approach in an era in which reproducing hundreds of photos by the hour has never been easier.

The National Gallery of Canada has two exhibitions opening this fall related to the demise of analog photography: Robert Burley: The Disappearance of Darkness and Michel Campeau. What are your thoughts on digital photography in relation to both capture and printing?

WC: Well, in my case, it is interesting. In a show, if there is not enough light my prints do not project. The wrong colour paint behind the frames, same result. The wrong sequence or grouping, and they are only a bunch of pictures with no intelligence of direction. So, yes, I am as particular as I am in photographing.

For instance, though I am not against cropping a picture, in general I do not. If it is not all there when I “take” a picture it is likely that the image has no potency. I don’t take many pictures. Almost forty years—maybe 400 negatives, of these in the book. Six months at Mont St. Michel in 1982—maybe 80 negatives. Perhaps that is different than the tempo at present with digital picturemaking— I don’t really know what people do now. I only know it is rare for me to see something I really want to take in deeply and make a picture of.

In general, I consider digital—either the “capture” or the expression in ink—an amazing medium with enormous potential; but everything depends on the person behind its use. The same as with any medium.

NGCM: If you could give one piece of advice to an emerging landscape photographer, what would it be?

WC: Oh, goodness. Don’t look too much at what has been done before. Go out, see what you are touched by. See what you can do to express it. Don’t compare yourself to others. Just be simple and work, and look again and see if what has been made satisfies you only—at first.

NGCM: We have Shadow, Sandbar, Mont-Saint-Michel (1982) in our permanent collection, as well as seven of your County Court House series. Can you tell us a bit about the 1982 photograph, as well as something about the Court House series?

The Shadow, Sandbar, Mont St. Michel (1982) is one of my favourite pictures of MSM. There is an ethereal quality about it that rises above description.

The Court House project was conceived and indirectly directed by Phyllis Lambert, a Canadian and the creator of the Canadian Centre for Architecture. [Note: Phyllis Lambert has also been an important advisor and donor to the National Gallery of Canada over the years.]

There were 24 American photographers who scoured the judicial landscape for several years making, I believe, about 8,000 pictures of county court houses, exteriors and interiors. Maybe 1,000 courthouse were photographed out of about 2,000. It was a wonderful project, and I cared deeply as I worked on it.

Will you continue going back to Mont Saint-Michel and to Shiprock? What next?

Don’t know the answer to that question. I am gradually putting things back in shape right now, after three intense years of printing for the travelling show and publishing the book.

If you’re not able to catch the exhibition in New Mexico, keep an eye out for its other venues. The show—organized by the Phoenix Art Museum, where it premiered in January 2013—is travelling until 2017.

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