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photographs by Mark Klett and Byron Wolfetext by Rebecca Senf, Chief Curator, Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, AZwritten for the catalogue for the exhibition Charting the Canyon, Phoenix Art Museum, 2010
Arizona’s Grand Canyon - natural wonder, sacred land, national park, tourist attraction - is perhaps the world’s best “photo op.” Hearing the name brings to mind vividly colored, striated rock, the earth dropping away to the Canyon’s invisible depths. But what is the source of the image that springs into our imagination? Is it a nineteenth century survey drawing of the Canyon’s horizontal sweep? Or the black-and-white photographs Ansel Adams made in the 1940s? Perhaps it is the anonymous color postcard picked up at a souvenir stand, or a snapshot from a family vacation?In 2007 photographers Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe headed to the Grand Canyon to grapple with the many image-makers who had visited the site before. Klett, a Regents Professor at Arizona State University, and Wolfe, a
former student of Klett’s who is now Director of the Photography Program at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, began rephotographing historic images together in 1997. In that year they worked on the project Third View, making new images at the precise locations from which government survey photographers worked in the nineteenth century. The resulting views, and a range of related oral histories and artifacts collected from those spots, document change. The photographs collapse decades, placing a scene from the 1870s next to one of our time.Analyzing the pictures raises questions—which environmental changes are man-made? Is change accelerating? Could our awareness of what the land once was impact future actions?Together Klett and Wolfe have dramatically expanded their interpretation of rephotography. During three summers of field work at the Grand Canyon, they identified the exact locations portrayed in historic photographs and drawings. From those geographic points they created new photographs that incorporate the original view. Digital versions of the historic images are inserted within the contemporary photograph, creating sweeping panoramas that convey the big picture surrounding earlier artists’ depicted views. Working collaboratively, Klett and Wolfe challenge one another to invent new ways to integrate the historic images they discover, and to explore the themes that intrigue them.
Grand Canon of the Colorado, Thomas Moran, sketch.