Mirrored Worlds

An Interview with Stuart Klipper


Mirrored Worlds: An Interview with Stuart Klipper

The American photographer Stuart Klipper is what one might call a quintessential globetrotter. He has traveled extensively throughout his career, reaching both the North and South Poles, all 50 states of the United States, and has logged thousands of miles of seaborne travel. Stuart’s curious, exploratory spirit has driven him to photograph the physical topography and ambient conditions in some of the world’s most remote places in panoramic format, earning him numerous awards and multiple grants from the NEA as well as the Guggenheim, Bush, and McKnight Foundations.

Today, he is at home in Minnesota; we’re meeting via Skype. “Can you see me?” he asks, adjusting the angle of his computer screen until he appears within the digital frame of mine. He waves, fingers decorated with heavy, turquoise rings. In the background: a patchwork of photographs tacked onto a wall, a tin letter scale on top of a filing cabinet, countless books—items too many to number, and each (I presume) with its own story. The perceptive eyes of a gray-eared cat peer at me from one of the photos on the wall, and we begin.

In conversation, Stuart is eccentric and introspective, often pausing to parse out the philosophical depth of a particular thought or question. At the time of our Skype, Stuart has just returned from what he describes as “a completely unanticipated, self-imposed, and intense photo project of a major tree removal operation.” His face is reddened from the June sun, but his delight in the unprecedented task is unmissable. “I was there—just up the alley—for about three hours with my little camera. I’m obsessive when it comes to these things,” he explains.

You’ve been to Iceland about seven times now, your most recent trip being in July of 2016. What has made you want to keep coming back?

I’ve always been deeply impressed by how Iceland has turned itself into an almost sacred presence for me. It’s a place where geology is so actively evident, and there’s something really compelling in that. I also know a lot about the Icelandic sagas and Norse history and admire how everyone there knows what happened on that piece of land generations ago. Also, the whole thing about ‘the hidden people’ intrigued me too—you could be walking over a whole lava field and be told that there could either be actual water coursing underneath, or just the hidden people talking to you. So I carry these ideas with me each time I return. It’s all so enthralling.

During your most recent trip, you took a series of photographs in both B&W and color—essentially, you took two photos of the same thing.

Most of the larger bodies of work I’ve done were with more than one camera and in more than one format and emulsion. This trip was with two cameras, similar formats, different in scale, in both color and black and white. The importance of that decision might become evident once I start getting a handle on the work, but if nothing else, the black and white images serve as an indication of another world, or an alternate way of viewing one thing.

Why did you choose to execute the series in this way?

I think I like to carry so much equipment [laughs]! Well, really there are two things that I think come into play. In the past, what I’ve usually done is go out and try to concentrate on something that first arrests my attention. I’ve done this in many permutations, and then go on to see how I could come at that thing or place differently. I’ve also spent a lot of time over the years immersing myself in scientific subjects and how science works. As a kid and into adulthood, I subscribed to Scientific American. I read it religiously. So I know the constructs of scientific epistemology, which is another way I counterpoint images with the idea of complementarity in mind. I have a few different views that exist best when they exist in relation to one another. And I think it’s important to look at things that are seemingly central through more than one mode of observation and reflection.

Iceland, June 2016, Stuart Klipper
Iceland, June 2016, Stuart Klipper

Like a new way of seeing the landscape.

Yes. I made some choices, of course. In Iceland in 2016, I used the larger camera, a Linhof Technorama, for the color panorama shots. The other camera I used was a Hasselblad Xpan for the black and white photos. Uniformly, I kept a very heavy red filter on the Hasselblad camera during that trip. That intensified contrast and changed the hue of the sky. I didn’t do it conditionally, though. I didn’t take the filter on and off depending on the light and conditions. I wanted an aesthetic uniformity no matter what I was shooting. Otherwise, the photos would have been modulated by this filtration. I was just after a certain tonal voice.

Iceland is such a popular tourist destination at the moment. Naturally, a lot of images are being made in the country, and about the country. How do you feel about that?

At least this most recent time I went to Iceland, I knew that we were going to be around a lot of tourists. That was a given. I don’t try to be outrageous or anything, but a lot of times when I’m in places where a lot of people have cameras, I start to think they’re thinking things like: why is that guy—me—pointing his camera a different way than everyone else is? In general, sometimes the more oblique views give the greatest intimacies. When you don’t look at things head-on. When it comes to image-making, I have my own vocabulary—cognitive, aesthetic, and philosophical—and that was one way I knew that when I got to a waterfall, what would take me most out of the center of the frame were the torturous nearby rock surfaces rather than the grand cascade itself.

Has tourism changed the way you approach photography at all?

Though I’ve traveled a lot in my life have looked at a lot of things, I’ve never felt like I was doing what most tourists do. I think that when I arrive to places in which tourists are so heavily engaged, I try to address the appeal of those places in terms of why they’re becoming part of a tourist vernacular. A lot of times I wind up including some of those people in the images because they’re part of the overall reality I’m encountering. If the phenomenon of being in a touristy place is evident, I try to address it rather than become part of it. But I admit, I’m intimidated sometimes.

Why do you think Iceland has become so popular for tourists? Is it simply because it’s beautiful? Or does it have something to do with being remote?

Iceland is great at marketing [laughs]! Why is it popular right now? I don’t know for sure. The country of course had a financial rebound, so I think that this was the life ring Iceland was tossed. I have a feeling that my earliest photographs of the country had attracted curatorial types who are aware of the history of explorational photography.

I know that you’re particularly drawn to high latitude, isolated places—Antarctica especially. You did a big body of work there.

Well, I am trying to get to places that are uncommon, and that might harbor deep spiritual meaning for me. A lot of these remote places I visit allow me to stand aside from just about everything else in the world, and give me a viewpoint from which I can look back out from and gain a new sort of clarity, perhaps. As for the isolated, desolate parts of the world, sometimes all I have to say is that it just feels so good to be in that kind of space and place.

How did your interest in these kinds of places come about?

I read a lot about the Antarctic and the Arctic as a kid, so it’s a place I’ve loved knowing about for a long time. I guess you could say that I was primed with these early passions. I also had a few friends in college who were similarly interested in remote, difficult places. Antarctica is a big, empty, very daunting and harsh part of the world. That attracts a certain sort of people, and especially those who I like to call ‘life listers’. They have geographic bucket lists so to speak, who will do just about anything to add to them.
Before I ever got to Antarctica, I had signed on for a trip to go way down to southern Chile and Argentina, deep in Patagonia. At the time, I thought that was the closest I’d ever get to Antarctica. That was remote in its own right. It was also quite an important location in terms of human migration in the sense that it was pretty much the end of the road. That was a really powerful symbolic notion for me, being such a restless, wandering person—getting to the place where you had to stop.
I originally went to Antarctica in 1987 as part of a private sailing expedition. I was put in contact with a very adventurous yachtsman from Bermuda who invited me to come along. I like to joke about it and say, we sailed to Antarctica! which is, I guess, historically correct [laughs]. The five subsequent times I went was with the National Science Foundation as a participant of their Artists and Writers Program.

You also have quite an interest in the American Midwest, too.

When I was making sense of what I was trying to make sense of, I had been going to a lot of faraway places, traveling abroad a lot. The whole notion that artists go away to come back home stuck with me, especially since this was a time period in which I was coming back home and realizing that best way to drop anchor in home ground was to see what home ground actually is.
When I transplanted to Minnesota from New York, I tried to gain an understanding of my new home and was given a commission based on the work I was doing—finding the intrinsic characteristics of different American regions. I was hired on by a corporate art consultant who wanted photographs from three states. I ended up calling the project The World in a Few States, and so it became a non-dirty double entendre—I understood the states to be cognitive, intellectual, and perceptual rather than literal. This was the sort of thing I was trying to figure out—certain constructs, and how to fit them into a creative frame of reference.
Beyond location, my curiosities are about getting a handle on where people live their lives and what they’ve done there. Specifically, I like to scope out the types of land and landforms that seem to determine how cultures are developed locally.

Iceland, June 2016, Stuart Klipper
Iceland, June 2016, Stuart Klipper

Do you think traveling as a photographer changes what home ground is for you?

Well, a lot of this kind of work is solitary by definition—artmaking. I guess getting back home is a bit of a relief. Of course, there’s generally a cat waiting for me [laughs], and even once, a girlfriend. Also, the counterpoint between what I’m discovering in places where there’s a potential for things to be very new, and then coming home to the familiar is always enjoyable.
I’m a volunteer in an elementary school, and one thing I’ve told my students is that when you go to another country, even commonplace things there seem remarkable, like Wow, that’s what a toothpaste tube looks like in that part of the world?! And I tell them that traveling is a bit like pushing a little switch and walking out your front door to find that your front yard is suddenly different from the front yard you’ve always known.

That’s a good way of summarizing how travel changes the way you understand the ordinary.

Yes, and it has a lot to do with that dynamic of just opening yourself up, totally refreshing your perceptions. And of course by traveling, you become familiar with the incidentals—who you’re going to meet and who you’re going to try and stay in touch with. The chance occurrences.

From Iceland to Antarctica to Minnesota. I’m intrigued by the variety of places you photograph.

I’m by nature a taxonomist. I like my categories. I like inventories. These interests grew on me over the years while traveling through the US and seeing all those houses, main street facades and open croplands. I don’t go out there with a conscious checklist of things I’m looking for, but when I do come across something that interests me, I know it. I always feed on my prior experiences. I love that after I see, you know, eighty houses in fifty parts of the US, a house I come across in a different country echoes that.

That happens naturally, I’d imagine.

Yeah. There’s a constant evolving dialogue in what I try to do; because I’ve looked at these sorts of things for certain reasons for so long, so many times in so many places, that dictates when and where I come upon something intriguing. From there, whatever I find, I’m able to fit into a conceptual cubby hole of sorts. I prefer to work against a plan and deal with information as it comes.

Is planning bad for artmaking then?

Well I wouldn’t say bad. A lot of times when I go off on one of my forays, I’m bearing a certain sense of mission. There are questions that I’m being driven to go out and ask, and I do a lot of homework. So while I don’t draw up a flow chart, I’m heavily primed with information and curiosity. It doesn’t hurt to know what you need to bring on a trip and how to prepare yourself for things that might occur.

Do you think artists have a certain responsibility to represent or interpret in a certain way when they’re faced with places or things they’ve never seen before?

No matter what, artists carry on a certain visual tradition with their own fingerprint on it. Nobody can help being influenced. But there is probably a responsibility that artists feel in this sense. Perhaps it has to do with a need to engage and encapsulate everything they’re seeing.
I’ve had great privilege of traveling to a lot of places, and I feel very obliged to give back to the world. I feel obliged to show people what I’ve seen that they maybe couldn’t see, or to share what I understand about the world with others.

How about a responsibility to make work that somehow fits into a social, economic, or political context?

Artists should at the least be aware of what’s occurring in the place they’re traveling to. I went up to Lapland, in Sweden and Norway, not much more than a year after Chernobyl. That whole region was exposed to the radiation, and that affected the reindeer which the whole Saami culture is based around. I had radiation distribution maps, and all the photographs I made included the amount of radiation in that particular spot. So that trip was about documenting a part of the world that was on the brink of great threat, and responding to that particular disaster.

Why do you think so many artists crave isolated, uncharted, unseen places?

In their own sort of dialect, artists are drawn to these places for the same reasons I’ve been. The ambiance, the landforms, that’s part of the allure. The truth is, it’s the element of a challenge that pulls people. Artists crave getting work done under varying degrees of difficult conditions. There’s a psychology to it all.
A great author and friend of mine, Barry Lopez, wrote some beautiful things about looking out onto the world, looking out onto the contours of the world and finding some sort of congruence to the internal contours of the soul. That really makes sense to me. I think of another friend of mine who’s also been to the Antarctic. For him, and for myself, it’s where your soul feels the most right. Where you feel a kind of grace. In isolated places, but especially in the Antarctic, there is the great privilege of getting to see places that few people have ever seen before, places where you can emphatically say that your human eyes are looking at something that no human eyes have ever seen before. Antarctica, if it weren’t for the breathable atmosphere, is pretty close to some of those things you’d find on the satellites of Jupiter or Saturn. So there’s an otherworldly factor at play as well, poetically and then almost concretely.
There’s evidence that some of the early explorers may have felt isolated in their own society and cultures, which is why they were drawn to polar places. They were worlds that mirrored their own loneliness.

That’s quite beautiful actually.

It is.

The interview was originally published in ICEVIEW Magazine

Interview by KT Browne

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