Mark Klett reinvents teaching–in the desert.
September 6, 2010 § Leave a comment
Mark Klett always manages to be dressed for the desert and for the classroom at the same time. He wears earthy Keens, long shorts, and loose fitting, quick-dry, button-downs. Any time you see him he could be stepping out of an REI-dressing room, a faculty meeting, or a wilderness adventure special.
Then again, for Klett, the desert is the classroom. And never more so than since 2007, when he first began teaching a course he calls the Phoenix Transect Project.
“I wanted to do a class where the students were engaged in field work, on a directed project” he told me when we spoke last week. “Ideally, if I had my way, I’d devise a project where students would go out in the field for the whole semester. But nobody can do that. So to be realistic about it, I thought we could use Phoenix as a starting point. Because we’re all here—we can all get out in a matter of a half-hour and do something.”
Over the course of his career, Klett has photographed the landscape in a variety of ways, and often makes pictures in hard-to-reach places. He has built a number of his projects by researching old photographs of the landscapes across the United States (many from the US Geological Surveys done in the late 1800’s). He identifies the exact location in which an image was made, and then reconstructs the image close to 100 years later. In the project 3rd View, he repeated this process, re-photographing locations once more, to make a suite of 3 pictures of each place. In a different project, called After the Ruins, he looked at San Francisco in 1906 and in 2006.
As a Regents Professor at Arizona State University, he has taken students out into the Sonoran desert for years. It’s a harsh and exquisitely beautiful landscape that will stab you when you get too close. His camping cookbox boasts treasures that he has found on his trips: a spoon carved from Ironwood, a toothpick holder made from an empty shell casing, old Arizona license plates folded to make a cutlery drawer. Now he takes students into the wilds of the urban desert.
Mark Klett’s photographs depict the land, but they are about a lot of things. They are about the history of a society’s relationship with the places it inhabits. They are about change—slow changes and fast changes—that happen in a place. They are about government policies, ecology, the protection and use of natural resources, and changing social perceptions of the land. And by essentially photographing time itself, they change the way you think about how you fit into the world. There’s often more than a lifetime between one photograph and another.
The Phoenix Transect Project simultaneously highlights the many-layered nature of Klett’s own work, and allows students to reinvent it. It’s an innovative course that Klett has designed and been teaching for the last 4 years. It brings students and researchers from different disciplines together to do collaborative, multi-media research. The goal is to engage artists, researchers and residents in an extended dialogue about their community.
Each year new fieldwork is conducted, new participants are added, and the group chooses a new field problem. The projects are diverse. One student focuses on Home Tours–a fad where people open up their historic homes on weekends. (The video is fantastic.)
Another student photographs Phoenix Palms
and flight paths.
Someone else focuses on water: where it flows, where it doesn’t, and how engineering collides with the landscape.
And one student focuses on trash found in the bed of the Salt River, just east of Phoenix.
When seen together, the combined fieldwork of many years becomes a larger survey that creates a detailed portrait of a place evolving in time.
“It’s made the group of photographers think about how their work fits into other disciplines,” says Klett. And for the students coming from other disciplines? “I think it really opens their eyes to what photography can be about, and how they might use it in their work.”
Four doctoral candidates have participated in the course since 2008, and two are currently using their work from this class in their dissertations. One is including photographs in the written thesis for the School of Sustainability, and the other is curating an exhibition to accompany the defense of her research in the School of Geographical Sciences & Urban Planning.
A key component of getting a course like this going at ASU was for Klett to obtain affiliate status in a second department. That gives him the bureaucratic green light to mentor students working in other disciplines like anthropology, geography, or environmental science. He is now an affiliate professor of the ASU School of Sustainability. “That kind of thing isn’t going to happen unless the university supports it from the highest level. My understanding is that the president and the provost are really interested in that kind of thing, and supporting it actively.” Klett says. “It’s such a culture change…I’ve made these contacts in other departments—and I’d been here 25 years or more before any of that happened.”
This kind of course is quite a radical departure from the fine arts curriculum as well. Klett says that the presence of people from other disciplines has had a noticeable impact on the photographers.
“It’s made the group of photographers really aware of how their work enters into other areas; other disciplines; other dialogues,” he says. “And they realize that it’s kind of a bigger world than they thought it was when they started out.”
It also gives students a focus. Many people work intuitively, and this course helps add the framework to their pictures. Ultimately having a focus then leads to a larger group of pictures. Many students in the Phoenix Transect Project use their work from class as the basis for their thesis projects.
The course also teaches students how to collaborate. “These alliances form,” says Klett, around specific topics. Each student owns and promotes his or her own work, but there’s also an expectation that they participate in group exhibitions or publications, and that they draw attention back to the larger project.
“So it’s been a real eye-opener for a lot of them,” says Klett. “It’s been a very positive experience—people really love it.”
Last year, the group presented the project to the national conference of the Society for Photographic Education in Texas. It was the most highly rated program.
“I haven’t heard of anybody doing what we’re doing,” says Klett.
Tagged: Adam Thorman, Arizona, Arizona State University, ASU, Bryon Darby, Edgar Cardenas, Eliza Gregory, Geography, Jen Kitson, Mark Klett, phoenix, photo, photography, photojournalism, School of Sustainability