Full Episode Transcript
In this episode: virtual photography events in the age of pandemic, with Sioux City Art Center’s Magnetic West, and a studio tour with Mark Klett
Hey everybody Keith Dotson here. As a photographer and lover of all things photography-related, I think we are living in a golden age of photography. I know many people might disagree, but in addition to the boom of casual photography as one of the most pervasive forms of expression in contemporary society, serious photography is more accepted than ever by galleries and museums. Many people don’t realize that photography has struggled over the decades to be seen as a real art, but no more.
As an example, there’s a terrific exhibition of photography called “Magnetic West: The Enduring Allure of the American West” on show right now at the Sioux City Art Center, in Sioux City, Iowa. This is a city of 82,000 people in the true heartland of America. Sioux City is on the western edge of Iowa, on the Missouri River, at a corner of Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota. Sioux City is halfway between Omaha, and Sioux Falls. This is true cornfield country — and the Sioux City Art Center even has a room called the Corn Room, that displays the fabulous Corn Room mural painted by Grant Wood in 1926. This is a beautiful rolling cornfield landscape that was commissioned by a businessman for a hotel, and it was actually lost for decades under wallpaper — but was luckily uncovered and saved. But I digress —
My point is this — quality photography is being accepted and exhibited everywhere now, and that’s a good thing.
But also, thanks to the pandemic, arts organizations are reaching out in novel ways that they never did before, and that means that photography lovers can enjoy things from a distance. Don’t get me wrong — I do so miss seeing photo exhibits in person — there’s nothing like seeing a fine print face-to-face, but these virtual events bring us to events we wouldn’t otherwise see at all.
Magnetic West: The Enduring Allure of the American West — and to be clear — I haven’t been to Sioux City so what I’m talking about here has been gleaned from the Art Center’s publicity materials, but Magnetic West is an exhibition that explores the importance of the western landscape in the shaping of the American identity. Here’s a quote from the exhibition page:
“Some of the most significant photographers from the 20th century found their voice in the Western landscape, including Ansel Adams, Laura Gilpin, and Edward Weston. During the Great Depression photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, hired by the Farm Security Administration, documented rural and urban living conditions across the country.”
It’s important to recognize that the american pursuit of imminent domain brought conflict and devastation to indiginous people, and the exhibit doesn’t ignore the Native American angle on things — including work by Native American photographers in the mix.
One of my personal favorites in the show is by Sioux City Journal news photographer George I. Newman, who lived 1909 to 1983. Shot in 1947 and printed recently with archival pigments, his black and white photograph shows a white building with a big sign that says Emmett’s Tavern — with a Coca-Cola sign prominent in the middle of the sign. Parked across the front are five classic American automobiles from that era.
Museum curator Mary Anne Redding posted a Facebook video of herself talking about one particular photograph by Elaine Mayes, called, “Autolandscape, Utah, 1971.” I love this photograph — It’s a spare black and white photograph of the vast desert with mountains on the distant horizon. Along the bottom edge is a horizontal ribbon of road with a big puddle in the foreground — you can tell it’s a big puddle in the median between the divided lanes of the highway. In the center of the frame on the highway, reflecting in the big puddle is a small Greyhound bus going in the opposite direction. It’s a stunning image. I’ll include a link to the video in the description.
As part of the exhibition arranged by the Sioux City Art Center, I attended a Virtual Studio Visit with photographer Mark Klett, who broadcast live to a small group of us from his studio in Arizona. Klett has some work in the Magnetic West exhibition. Klett is a geologist turned photographer and professor of art at Arizona State University. His work is held in over 80 museum collections and he is the author of 15 books.
I first heard of Klett when I saw an exhibition of his well-known saguaro cactus photographs here in Tennessee. I was instantly enamored by them — those are straightforward black and white photographs of the cacti — which are a favorite subject of his still today. In those days, he made silver gelatin prints at 16 x 20 inches from large format Polaroid negatives. Now he’s printing in his studio at monumental sizes with a 64-inch inkjet printer.
Klett gave us a tour of his 2,100 square foot studio. He began by showing us his printing set-up — mostly digital now — with multiple Mac workstations and a 64 inch color printer. He’s working a lot with stereoscopes like the ones made in the 1800s. He said his father bought a stereoscopic camera in the 1940s before he was born and all of his childhood photos are stereoscopes. He’s making some stereoscopic images that are small enough for viewing on tabletops, and others that are wall mural size.
He showed us his sunsticks, which are small sculptures that originated with a simple stick poked into the ground on camping trips in the desert to help them try to guess where the sun would be when they woke up — OK I don’t understand the purpose, but over time he began embellishing the sticks until they really became sculptures. Every one is unique and the walls of his studio are literally lined with hundreds of these sunsticks.
In the storage room where he uses industrial shelving to hold supplies, he showed us a different collection. The walls are dotted with small custom-made shelves, each holding an artifact or object Klett found in the Arizona desert. These objects included a huge range of bullets and spent shells — some of which are terrifyingly large — I mean, what kinds of weapons are being used out in the desert? He also had broken car parts and all kinds of other things, which when lit and mounted strangely resembled small works of art.
It was fascinating to hear Klett’s background stories for collecting these objects, and to see what he and his students and assistants are working on. I felt energized and inspired by his talk. I encourage you to take part in photo events like these. This event was totally free of charge.
And when the world opens back up, be sure to go see photo exhibits live again too. It’ll transform your way of thinking about your own work.
That’s all I’ve got for this episode. Thanks for listening. I’ll talk to you again real soon.
Links and sources
Sioux City Arts Center, Magnetic West Gallery Brochure
Sioux City Arts Center, “Magnetic West: The Enduring Allure of the American West“
Sioux City Arts Center Facebook Page, Video, “Magnetic West Exhibition: Autolandscape,” Mary Anne Redding
“Virtual Studio Visit with Mark Klett,” Organized by Sioux City Arts Center, viewed live on Thursday, December 17, 2020 from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. (CST)