Wandering I

Stuart D. Klipper

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."


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.

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.

"We were traveling through the HaNegev, part of the Judean wilderness, and we camped a lot. So at night we'd sit around talking about all sorts of things. My friend was very secular also, but he could tell I was teeter-tottering, trying to incorporate myself into two worlds. He said, 'Horizons tell you you can be in a place where heaven and earth come into contact.' That happens in the Antarctic, too. Without the oxygen, it's much more familiar to the outer planets. You really do have a sense that you're on an object that's just floating in the firmament. It's really the end of the world, or an end of the world.

"That's one of the reasons I go to so many remote places: Because you can stand apart from everything and look back with some clarity."

As morning shaded into afternoon, Klipper went off to retrieve a sheaf of his writings. Among the papers he returned with was a poem he'd written in 1996 after seeing an exhibit of Eugène Atget's photographs. A few stanzas rather neatly encapsulate what Klipper had been talking about:

The world is big. Be in it.

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