Wandering I

Sailing to Antarctica, photographing the Sinai, and other adventures in being

 

One lazy late morning--the 200th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase to the day, as it happens--Klipper is pruning the trees in his front yard with a six-foot pole saw. "This one needs some more work," he says to a recalcitrant branch before heading inside.

When not on one of his peregrinations, Klipper makes his home in south Minneapolis--or, per his business card, at N 44° 54'36" W 93° 19'17"--in a well-kept house decorated with mementos of his many travels and friendships: photos by Lee Friedlander, whom Klipper has known for many years; big, colorful abstract paintings; and a Mardi Gras icon draped with beads. Klipper has a special affection for Cajun culture and makes frequent trips to Louisiana's Acadian parishes to indulge his passion for zydeco dancing.

Stuart D. Klipper

Klipper is 61 years old, a man of uncommon civility and wit, perhaps just a smidge eccentric. He wears--as he always seems to be wearing--large turquoise rings on four digits of either hand. Klipper loves turquoise, in part, he explains, because that was the color of his family's first car, a 1948 Studebaker Champion.

"My dad grew up in the Depression, in extreme poverty," he says. "He wasn't frugal in the sense of being tightfisted. But he was very conservative. Well, we got this car eventually, and we went on road trips. We had family in the Catskills--my mom married into a Jewish redneck clan, basically. So I had country-kid kinds of summers." These trips he considers the foundation of his life-long wanderlust.

Klipper grew up in the Bronx, and the hint of an accent remains. Idea, for example, becomes ideer. He was, he says, a mostly bashful kid, with an inborn facility for geography and a fascination with faraway places.

At 16, Klipper matriculated at the University of Michigan with the intention of becoming a rocket scientist, and left six years later with a degree in psychology and an abiding interest in pottery. He was, by his own description, an autodidactic student--and an easily distracted one. "I was thrown into an arena of resources the likes of which I could barely have imagined before. So I'd sit in the record library--one of my interests was early music--and listen for hours to all the harpsichord compositions of Scarlatti. Then I'd go to the magazine section and sit and read through every issue of The New Yorker, every issue of Life and Look. Of course, my class books were off somewhere else, waiting."

After college, Klipper spent a year hitchhiking around Scandinavia, inspired in part by an interest in Swedish design aesthetics, and in part by an interest in Swedish girls. He located a prime specimen of the latter, and returned with her to New York and a life of quasi-bohemianism: working in the city's welfare office, picking up odd filmmaking jobs, and, of course, making photographs.

"It was the second half of the sixties, and New York was a pretty sweet place to just float around," he says. "I never really identified with any counterculture. A lot of my friends were more hippie-ish, but I was always hypercritical about certain laxities there. I was just out there doing my thing."

In 1970, after what he describes as a "heartbreak sort of thing," Klipper migrated to Minnesota to take a one-year teaching job at MCAD. It was around that time, also, that Klipper began to travel in earnest. In 1976, he made his first trip to the Arctic, on a Sierra Club expedition. In 1984, he visited hundreds of cemeteries and memorials along World War I's western front. In 1985, a fabulously wealthy and eccentric couple based in the Dominican Republic sponsored him on a trip to Pakistan, where he photographed Afghan refugees in the now-infamous Pashtun region; and then to Sri Lanka, where the plane he'd taken into the country was blown up by Tamil insurgents. In 1988, he documented fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the boreal forests of Lapland. And, in 1989, he made his first NSF-sponsored trip to Antarctica.

Klipper had been reading deeply in metaphysics--Heidegger, in particular--and he describes his Antarctic sojourn as a philosophical epiphany. And also a physical one: Klipper discovered that melting snot can seriously derail the photographic process. Yet, working in gale-force winds and temperatures cold enough to shatter the film inside his camera, Klipper documented the mass of vast, crenellated icebergs bobbing in southern seas, the pressure of floes, cutting, eon by eon, through solid rock, and the unrelenting, abiotic sameness of a landscape that flirted with the limits of terrestrial experience. A place where human finitude is always manifest--a metaphor, he explains in typically Klipperistic fashion, for the possibility of metaphor.

 

In 1985, Klipper went into the desert to find God. Along with a friend, an Israeli anthropologist and environmentalist, and local Bedouin guides, he traveled by jeep through the arid, sand-swept wildernesses of Israel and Egypt.

"I'm not particularly religious--or at least I don't really follow or observe a liturgy," he explains. "And I don't like to use the word 'spiritual' because that's been so trashed and appropriated. But I wanted to get into a body of work that entailed going out into the desert where a monotheistic deity first appeared, or however you want to talk about it. You know, sort of God's hometown.

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