It doesn’t always happen like this, but occasionally the photo gods offer up just the thing you need at just the right time. That’s what happened Wednesday when a copy of Mark Klett’s Revealing Territory dropped into my life out of nowhere.
After a day of darkroom printing, I was eating dinner at a nearby Laotian food truck when a stranger struck up a conversation about my camera. His name was Robert Petersen. We chatted about how you don’t see many film cameras bla bla bla and his old Leica which he missed bla bla bla the usual bla bla bla lenses bla film bla body bla technical bla bla bla.
I should probably point out that Robert didn’t look like a photographer. Not that a photographer is supposed to look any certain way, but he looked a bit like The Dude from Big Lebowski, plus twenty years and some hard luck. In other words, he resembled the demographic that’s slowly getting weeded out of Portland by the yuppie professional class. I want to say this class tends to look more like photographers, or at least like the popular conception of photographers, but maybe I’m wrong. Sometimes it can be The Dude.
“What type of photographs do you make?” I asked. His schtick: portraits of women through frosted glass. Turned out he’d just published a book of these portraits, one of several books he’d made. Okaay. I must put out book-loving pheromones or something because these guys always find me. I don’t know how but somehow he could just tell. No sooner had I said, “I love photography books,” than he was off. “Be right back,” he muttered, melting through the food truck lot to his home nearby.
When he returned, Robert was holding Revealing Territory by Mark Klett. “For you,” he said, placing it near my food.
What? You’re just giving me this??? I don’t even know you? WTF? “It’s ok,” he said, “I’ve got another copy at home.” He’d tried to sell the extra but Powell’s didn’t want it, and since then he’d been trying to find a good home for it, and here I was near his house exuding pheromones, and so Boom!
Just the week before, I’d donated a box of unwanted books at St. Vincent’s. Was this my book karma payback? Is that how it works? I sat there kind of stunned, and before I could really process the chain of events Robert walked away as suddenly as he’d appeared, leaving me with my noodles, camera, and Klett.
I’ve spent some time with Revealing Territory today and I must report that it’s f**king wonderful. Before this book I’d mostly known Mark Klett from his Rephotographic Survey Projects (RSP). Revealing Territory was published in 1992, just on the cusp between the RSP Second View and Third View. It shows large format photography of the 1980s southwest, made with a very sharp eye and wit, and captions handwritten directly onto the photos.
The reproductions are beautifully done, so finely detailed they almost exude the whiff of darkroom chemicals. And you can certainly catch a whiff of the RSP style, but in a less prescriptive form. Klett’s visual fingerprints are everywhere, sometimes literally. The photos provide a sort of Ur-stone to his general photographic approach — the view (which I share) that all photographs are essentially self-portraits, even the most seemingly evidentiary — well articulated by Klett in the afterword:
Timothy O’Sullivan, William Henry Jackson, and other nineteenth-century photographers whose work I had rephotographed taught me that pictures are never just topographical. In following their tracks, I found that their individual visions emerged. It didn’t matter if historians argued that they were scientifically biased, or aesthetically influenced, or culturally constrained. I came to appreciate the sense of journey which permeates their photographs. Just like them, we moderns it seemed were doomed to be passers through in the West, trailing artifacts but ultimately owning nothing of the land but the time we spent.
You can spend a bit of time plus $6 to find this on Amazon. Or if you’re in Portland, I understand Powell’s has a few copies. Best $6 I never spent on a photo book gifted to me by the photo gods via Robert Petersen.