The first time Stuart Klipper sailed for Antarctica, in 1987, he went aboard the Warbaby, a 61-foot yacht that Ted Turner had skippered to victory in the famously storm-wracked 1979 Fastnet race. Klipper himself wasn't a seafaring novice, exactly--he'd recently been on an expedition to Greenland. But he'd never been in the Southern Ocean, where hundred-foot high swells and submerged icebergs can easily chew such a small boat into flotsam.
"I talked to the skipper," he recalls, "and he said, 'Sure, having a photographer might be fun.' I said, 'Yeah.' And then I didn't hear back from him for a long time. I didn't realize that by saying 'yeah,' I'd said I was going. The reality of it didn't sink in until I stepped onto this yacht down in the Straits of Magellan. It looked pretty big at the wharf.
"The skipper was Bermudean," Klipper continues. "He really wrote the book on brining a yacht safely through a hurricane. So he knew how to handle heavy weather. Though you'd never think it: He was sort of doddering, and he liked a strong drink. I asked him, 'Just give me some general sense of the risk here.' And he said, 'Well, I don't want to die.'"
In the course of his travels to the remote corners of the world, Klipper has had a number of brushes with mortality. These, he regards with a measure of sangfroid, even philosophical detachment. On one of Klipper's subsequent trips to the Antarctic, under the aegis of the National Science Foundation, the helicopter he was riding in flew smack into a polar snowstorm. Quite suddenly, Klipper recalls, it was as though the helicopter was being bounced around the inside of a ping pong ball.
"The pilot--it was a young woman--just floored it, or whatever the equivalent is in a helicopter. When we came out, the horizon was nowhere near where it was supposed to be. I was just very calm, though--this was pure existential experience.
"Several of the things I've done have gotten pretty edgy--don't tell my mom. I don't dwell on it much. You just do what needs to be done."
What Klipper does, specifically, is make photographs. To this end, he has traveled to the Antarctic (six times), to Sri Lanka, Australia's Never Never, Patagonia, and many points in between. He has scaled glaciers in Greenland, trudged through Costa Rican cloud forests with mud thick enough to suck the boots off your feet and swallow them whole, and followed Bedouin camel trails through the Sinai. He has eaten smoked reindeer hearts (very tasty, apparently), pickled whale blubber ("Imagine a gum eraser soaked in acetone, and you've got a pretty good approximation"), and tropical fruits so exotic that they might have come off a UFO. Everywhere Klipper has traveled, he has carried his Linhof Technorama, a big, bulky, rare camera which he purchased--for more than he has ever spent on a car, he likes to point out--from a mountaineer eager to disencumber himself before climbing K-2.
Since 1980, Klipper has also been making a photographic survey of America. This project, which he calls "The World in a Few States," has steadily ballooned in ambition and scope, and now includes more than 25,000 pictures of the American landscape in its broad variety: dusty back roads, grain elevators, abandoned mine heads, craggy mountains, gentle swales, small-town main streets, sprawling oil refineries, rivers and prairie, cotton fields, and whatever else happens to catch his wandering eye. A selection of these photos is presently on display at Minneapolis's Groveland Gallery, in an exhibit, "Louisiana Purchase," timed to coincide with the bicentennial of Napoleon's fire-sale give-away to the young American republic.
The thing about Klipper's photographs is that they're big. But, no, big isn't quite right. Spacious is what they are. The Linhof takes pictures in a wide-angle, panoramic format, and the skies of Klipper's scenes--salmon-belly silver over a winter-hardened Iowa cornfield, for instance, or dusky blue over Nebraska grasslands--unfurl into a vast, almost existential, emptiness. Looking, for instance, at his photo of a Texas homestead beneath an oncoming storm, you feel the largeness of the land, as well as the extreme conditionality of human habitation. And always, Klipper's photographs carry the subtle, romantic charge of discovery. He is enchanted by horizons.
Martin Krieger, an experimental particle physicist, USC professor, and old friend of Klipper's, explains the appeal of Klipper's photographs this way: "My own feeling is that what is distinctive is [his] commitment to geography. Not abstract space, not theory, but actual places, in their particularity.
"A second point is that the world is 'there' for him," Krieger continues. "To be discovered, to be pictured, to be encompassed, to be GIS'd as well, of late. A third point is that photographing is an adventure, an exploration, a cross of the Lewis and Clark expedition and a road movie. Such a life is in many ways a lonely one, and for someone so animated with other people, it is a remarkable sacrifice on his part to be a photographer."
Klipper himself is wont to describe his work as natural philosophy, a rich stew of disciplines ranging from geography to cosmology, from quantum physics to an inquiry into the nature of God. When asked what his photos are about, Klipper uses a phrase that's typical of his rigorously intellectual, sometimes elusive turn of mind: "They're about about-ness."