Shiprock and Mont St. Michel: Photographs by William Clift

BY Douglas Fairfield, April 27, 2013

William Clift, Mont St. Michel, FranceWilliam Clift, Mont St. Michel, France

Santa Fe-based landscape photographer William Clift is an artist with exceptional vision and impeccable technique. His black-and-white images of the desert Southwest transcend straight documentation – an aesthetic first established in the 19th century by the likes of Eadweard Muybridge, William Henry Jackson, and John Hillers and continued by 20th-century photographers Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and Laura Gilpin.

Clift’s expertise is fully on display in the exhibit Shiprock and Mont St. Michel: Photographs by William Clift at the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe through September 8. The exhibition was curated by Rebecca Senf and organized by the Center for Creative Photography and the Phoenix Art Museum in Arizona. In two separate but related groups of work that span almost four decades (1973 – 2010), the show features approximately 70 gelatin silver prints that convey places both natural and manmade, each endowed with spirituality.

Clift’s observations of Mont St. Michel – an 8th-century Romanesque/Gothic monastery set atop a rocky, tidal island in northern France –include stairways, doorways, flying buttresses, cloisters, cast shadows, and surrounding waters that convey not only a sense of place and its unique location, but also a deep-felt sacredness. Indeed, Clift’s views of the monastery’s passageways recall Frederick H. Evans’ photographs of Mont St. Michel in the early 1900s. When Clift turns his camera to the outer banks to capture the silhouette of Mont St. Michel cast in shadow over the sea, its jagged profile echoes that of the volcanic outcropping of Shiprock, located half a world away in northwestern New Mexico.

So named by early explorers for its semblance to a clipper ship sailing across the desert, Shiprock, like Mont St. Michel, rises dramatically above a flat plain and has long been seen by indigenous peoples of the American Southwest as a place of mythological import and sanctity. Clift’s perspectives of Shiprock fully mark those qualities, while the isolated spectacle of Shiprock recalls some of the dramatic rock formations taken by Timothy O’Sullivan during his sojourn with the 40th Parallel Survey in 1867.