Amid the high-profile shows filling the Phoenix Art Museum’s impressively strong season this spring, there is a kind of sleeper exhibit in the quiet, second-floor Norton Gallery. It’s called “Shiprock and Mont St. Michel: Photographs by William Clift.”
The exhibit is composed of black-and-white photographs that capture the mystery, quietude and sanctity of these two landmarks, one in New Mexico and the other in France.
By coincidence, I have seen both places, and I can tell you that with Shiprock, especially, I never imagined that it could bask in such beauty. Many times, I have driven by the volcanic monolith — so named for its resemblance to a clipper ship — on my way to Colorado and dismissed it as an oddity on the desert floor, not worth exploring. Clift, however, has explored it from various angles, finding much to record in the way of its cliff faces, long ridges, and dusty, desolate surroundings.
Mont St. Michel, on the other hand, is a tourist attraction on the northwestern coast of France, a tidal island that for many generations was approachable only by a causeway that appeared at low tide. I saw it many years ago, while living in England. The name comes from the architecturally significant monastery that has sat atop the island since the 10th century. Clift’s photographs embrace the island’s mysteries, showing us bird’s-eye views, close-ups, and panoramic views of swirling waters, foggy settings and surrounding farmland, along with architectural details of the Romanesque-Gothic monastery.
Shiprock and Mont St. Michel are more alike than I realized, in the way that they both powerfully rise from the ground in a stark landscape and in the way wind-blown sand resembles ocean waves. The surreal beauty in this array of more than 50 photographs make it a worthwhile stop during any visit to the museum.
Below is a slide show, with all images courtesy of the Phoenix Art Museum. But don’t let that suffice: See the show yourself before it goes away on April 7, 2013.