WILLIAM CLIFT started taking photographs when he was 10 years old and has never looked back.
"The Photographs of William Clift: 1956-1992" - a retrospective of his work - is on display at the Equitable Gallery here through June 12. More than anything else, the exhibit points to a little appreciated American treasure. Clift's photographs sustain an exceptionally high level of quality throughout his four decades of work.
Clift was born in Boston in 1944, and that city served as the photographer's earliest subject as he developed a specialization in architectural photography. When he moved his family to Santa Fe, N.M. in 1971, Clift changed his focus to landscapes.
Taken with a large-format camera, black-and-white landscapes have become Clift's signature creation. This show also includes a group of 40 color photographs (mainly portraits of family members) taken with a Polaroid Spectra camera. While they are interesting, the color photographs lack the subtlety of the photographer's black-and-white landscapes.
Many photographs on display are master prints drawn from Clift's personal collection. Photographs from a series chronicling American county courthouses for the United States Bicentennial and a number of Clift's Hudson River landscapes are also included in the exhibit.
Despite his range of themes, Clift never appears to be chasing trends. His powerful images coax the exquisite beauty of a landscape out of its hiding place in a careful way.
Clift often creates a dramatic stage by using expanses of flat land in the foreground with a backdrop of mountains in the distance.
As in photographs of lunar landscapes, where most of the scenery is left to the imagination of the viewer, Clift's work relies on the observer to put forth some effort. But he always goads the imagination.
In "Little River, New Mexico: 1992," a silvery river leaps like a neon snake out of a sleeping landscape. In "Fence, Aspens, Santa Fe: 1974," shimmering aspen trees appear to jump out of the dark forest at the viewer.
In a monograph accompanying an earlier exhibit, Clift wrote: "I am not a photographer who goes from place to place in search of dramatic moments. It is more interesting to dig and delve."
Clift often uses perfectly placed shadows that appear almost as substantial as rocks and mountains.
"Landscapes are partly a response to the geological architecture of the land," Clift writes. "Though many images are of natural scenes, they are not meant solely to glorify nature."
Clift has compared the vast landscapes of New Mexico to the wide ocean expanses he became familiar with while growing up on the East Coast. The sea always seems to be alive - moving and changing - and Clift has discovered how to capture similar restless currents of visual energy playing over the dry land.
"I am more drawn to that land where certain energies are closer to the surface," he writes. "In certain of these places primordial forces seem right at the edge of visible action."
Clift's photographs do seem to hum with a delicately balanced, almost perceptible tension.
* `A Hudson Landscape,' containing 46 Clift photographs and an accompanying text by the poet Paul Kane, has recently been published by William Clift Editions.