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Monday, April 6, 2009

Landscape Masters Through Time

Photography’s greats must find philosophical constants while embracing change

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masters A newer image that reflects Clifton’s current approach of not preconceiving photographs. He gets to a location and takes what’s offered.
Carr Clifton
A consistent vision in an ever-changing landscape
Ask Carr Clifton for the most influential photographer in his life, and he won’t hesitate to answer. It’s Philip Hyde. A photographer’s photographer, Hyde’s name often is dropped as the underappreciated master of 20th-century landscape photography. Clifton also is cited by his contemporaries, who appreciate both his beautiful work and his pioneering spirit—the very things he credits Hyde for nurturing within him.

“As a friend and neighbor, Philip Hyde’s influences on my approach to photography and life have been enormous,” Clifton says. “Philip was fortunate enough to learn from many greats—Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Minor White—and has passed down the cumulative knowledge, approaches and sensibilities of the 20th century’s greatest masters to photographers like myself. His insistence on staying true to your own vision and to never emulate or copy anyone has been the basis for my career. Philip’s photographic contribution to conservation is unparalleled in the history of America and has impacted a generation of photographers.”

Conservation has been paramount for Clifton since day one. Earlier photographers set the stage for today’s public acceptance. “One of the important touchstone moments in landscape photography,” he explains, “was the public’s realization that our wild lands are finite, and the remaining wild lands are being assaulted by our government, industry and special-interest groups. The environmental movement and a new appreciation of what we might lose was brought to the forefront of society. Imagery became a tool to educate the public—thus the Sierra Club pioneered the publication of the full-color, exhibition-format photography book, used to sway politicians and public opinion.”

Clifton shares his predecessors’ passion for ecology. What’s surprising, though, is his view of the advantages those old-timers had over shooters of today. “We have access to excellent cameras, lenses, films, digital sensors,” Clifton says, “and we have artistic control over color imagery unimagined by the 20th-century greats. But they had unlimited access to the landscape, free from overregulation and overpopulation.

The feeling of discovery must have been very intoxicating. Originality wasn’t a problem. I truly envy the early photographers because it really is for me about wildness, solitude and discovery. I would gladly sacrifice the computer and digital world in a second for their place and time in history.”

masters This older, traditional Clifton landscape shows a grand vista. masters Another traditional Clifton image from the desert southwest. masters This newer image shows Clifton’s ability to combine a dramatic mountainscape with a foreground subject with which one immediately connects.

A beautiful image that shows Clifton’s current approach to making intimate images.
Clifton’s environmental mission has remained a constant, but the subjects and techniques are constantly changing. He was once, like many, beholden to stock agencies that provided a sustainable living for landscape photographers. The advent of microstock and other Internet market factors made that aspect of the business a much greater challenge, but it also has freed Clifton to focus primarily on the images he’s interested in making.

Clifton’s career has seen technical adaptations, too—first a transition to Fujichrome Velvia, then a more recent switch from large-format to medium-format cameras. Soon he expects to take up digital capture, but only when his reserves of film are depleted and quality and price make replacing a finely tuned film system a practical proposition.

“We have the tintype of digital right now,” Clifton says, “and it’s evolving very quickly. I feel that straight large-format photography as it has been practiced for the last 60 years is coming to a close. The detail and sharpness issues with smaller formats have been solved and will continue to evolve. No longer will our images look stiff from using a giant tripod and wooden camera, exposing images on hand-loaded sheet film. The tripod as we know it will be reserved only for timed exposures, and photos will become much more fluid in their composition. Creativity is exploding with the instant feedback of seeing the image right after exposure. I think photography is still in its infancy; we’ll see truly amazing imagery being created in this 21st century.”

From 1978 to 2002, Clifton used a Toyo 4x5 field camera. Since 2002, the majority of his images have been made with the Pentax 67II using Fujichrome Velvia 50 and 100. After processing and editing, these images are scanned and fine-tuned in Photoshop CS4.

To see more of Carr Clifton’s photography, visit www.carrclifton.com.


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