In 1870, a young mining engineer, Raphael Pumpelly, wrote Across America and Asia: Notes of a Five Years’ Journey Around the World, which included an account of his travels through Arizona’s Camino Del Diablo, or “The Road of the Devil.”
Nearly 150 years later, Mark Klett has approximated Pumpelly’s path, using the historical text as a rough guide for his own exploration of the landscape. In Camino del Diablo, on view at Pace/MacGill Gallery through February 21, past and present intersect, overlap and divert course, making for a fascinating study of time and its relationship with place.
Like many early adventurers in strange “new” lands, Pumpelly regarded the Camino – an unforgiving desert where conflict between white settlers, Mexican laborers, and Native Americans was common – with a mix of dread, excitement, and naiveté. In Klett’s photographs, which are presented alongside facsimiles of the book, he steps into Pumpelly’s shoes without getting too comfortable in them. He captures the spirit of the explorer’s dark, wide-eyed vision with a critical distance.
In his most literal interpretations of Pumpelly’s words, Klett captures some of the natural elements of the desert, including a rattlesnake, which Pumpelly called the desert’s “most powerful inhabitant,” and the saguaro cactus, whose “fluted” architecture Pumpelly compared to a Grecian column. In these images, the Camino seems ageless and changeless.
But Klett’s work is perhaps most intriguing when it shows how the Camino of today – it now encompasses a U.S. military training ground and sees the movements of smugglers and illegal immigrants – mirrors its past. In photos of tire tracks and a blanket left by a passing immigrant, one sees parallels to Pumpelly’s record of inspecting “the sand for tracks, and every object within fifty yards for the lurking place of an Indian.” In a photo of an unexploded ordinance, one is reminded that violence still reigns in the desert.
But beauty, Klett insists, is just as pervasive as danger in the Camino, a notion he proves again and again. The dichotomy presents itself most clearly in a close-up of a sign explaining the place’s history. The sign is riddled with bullet holes, but one can see through them small glimpses of the stark, lovely mountains and sky beyond, a poignant indication that the desert, in all its contradictions, is an intriguing muse.