Treasures from the Vault: William Clift

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

What do you pass every day that you don’t see? When I first moved to San Francisco, I sent an embarrassing amount of palm tree photos to my friends and family. Each one was a marvel, and I had to capture every single one because they were new and exotic. After a few months, however, they faded into the background, as usual as dogwoods and oak trees. Particularly when we grow up around iconic art and architecture, our eyes roll when people ask questions about our interactions with it and how it involves itself in our daily lives. The answer, which often disappoints, is that it doesn’t. The covering of the L’Arc de Triomphe posthumously by Christo and Jeanne-Claude is one example: its fabric veil forced those who live with it to look again. While an uncommon occurrence, other artists like American photographer William Clift and recent “Treasure” artist John Bower are there every day to remind us to look again at what’s around us.

Clift, born in Boston, is known for his black-and-white imagery of landscapes and architectural subjects, mostly in Santa Fe, New Mexico where he has lived and worked since 1971. His first camera? A Bakelite Kodak Brownie ‘Hawkeye’ at the age of 10! He was introduced to the finer points of photography via a workshop with Paul Caponigro in 1959 at the age of 15, working professionally by 1963 despite his lack of formal training. He reflected on his choice, saying “I’m glad I never went to art school, because I realize that if I have something in my mind that I recognize and intellectualize, it gets in my way and I have a hard time bypassing it to what really interests me”; Clift also represents himself, no gallery necessary. His panoramic landscape photography is often referred to as “documentarian”, despite Clift’s assertion against this label, as his photographs capture landscapes over time; for example, he spent 40 years (on and off) capturing the Navajo Nation area of Shiprock, New Mexico. In comparison to Ansel Adams, who zooms in on a scene, Clift prefers to present the “bigger picture” landscape, allowing the viewer to be absorbed into its immensity. There is no message; instead, the viewer is invited to look. In addition to landscapes, Clift also photographs architecture (and the occasional figure–from 1977-1984 he made portraits of fellow southwest American artist Georgia O’Keefe and her assistant, Juan Hamilton, at her home studio). The photograph FWMoA holds in the permanent collection is a mixture of both, an architectural landscape in St. Louis, Missouri.

William Clift, American, b. 1944. Reflection, Old St. Louis County Courthouse, St. Louis, MO. Silver gelatin print, 1976. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. M Dayne Bonta, 2005.12.3. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

The St. Louis County Courthouse, affectionately referred to as the Old Courthouse, is infamous as the setting for the Dred Scott case. A combination of federal and state courthouse, it was Missouri’s tallest building from 1864-1894 and today is part of the Gateway Arch National Park, operated by the National Park Service. Photographed for the Courthouse Project, initiated in 1974 to promote architecture as art by Phyllis Lambert, 24 artists were approached to create a pictorial record of the buildings that are unique expressions of American society and architectural legacy. Like the church in England, the county courthouse in America was, and remains, the seat of justice. The physical embodiment of the democratic values and principles that founded the country, Clift endeavored to translate the idea of this from an architectural to a pictorial form. Did he succeed?

Entitled Reflection, the artist stands in the Broadway Tower (100 N. Broadway) to capture the reflection of the Courthouse in another downtown building on 10 S. Broadway. Taken in 1976, Busch Stadium, home to the St. Louis Cardinals, sits in the far right. To the left, the circular building is the now defunct Millennium Hotel. In the background, the river is just visible in the left-hand corner, a bridge leading to Illinois barely discernable (most likely the Eads Bridge). Why the reflection? The façade of the Courthouse is remarkable, but in this image none of its fine details are visible. In fact, it appears slightly blurry, the reflective panels creating a mirage that modernizes the building. Clift shows it interacting with its environment, cars zooming either side and clouds gathering overhead. Placing it in context, if we took a photo of it today we could easily see how the skyline has changed (or not).

Perhaps it’s an homage to the building as a reflection of America itself? The Dred Scott case was tried there in 1864, a landmark piece of legislation that found that Dred Scott, a slave who sued for his freedom after his owner took him into the free state of Illinois, could not sue for freedom because he wasn’t a citizen and, therefore, not protected by the rights laid down in the Constitution (Dred Scott v. Sanford). Wrapped up in the Missouri Compromise (which permitted Missouri’s statehood as a slave state and Maine as a free state, dividing the country into North and South), the decision inflamed an already divided nation. It would take the Union victory in the Civil War to void the Dred Scott ruling with the 13th and 14th Amendments. Courthouses stand as the rule of law, reflecting the justness of the government, both state and federal. Architectural behemoths that lay down the rule of law using pen and paper, Clift renders the heavy building itself to paper–changing the form but maintaining its austerity as if reflected in a pool of water. What other laws have courthouses encoded, both to the delight and dismay of their citizenry?

Today, the buildings remain. If you were to visit St. Louis, however, the reflection has changed a bit.

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