Photographer: Mark Klett
Subject: Saguaro cactus
Place: Sonoran Desert, Arizona
Camera: 4x5 Toyo Field
Film: Polaroid 55
Exposure: 1/4th of a second @f/32
Stick ’em Up!
In photographer Mark Klett’s extravagant art book Saguaros, naturalist Gregory McNamee contributes an essay about the Sonoran Desert’s giant cacti in which he recounts a staggeringly tall tale about one improbable specimen. A notorious desert rat named Joe Mulhatton, the story goes, discovered a saguaro whose taproot was anchored in a positively charged vein of magnetic ore. This carnivorous cactus, Joe claimed when well lubricated, not only had the power to pull birds and rodents into its sharp spikes, it had dragged, impaled, and consumed two unsuspecting campers who had pitched their tent in its shadow. Whew!
Then again, these tree-sized cacti do have an extraordinary magnetism for photographers. Navigate to flickr.com, the Internet’s popular photo-sharing site, do a search for “saguaro,” and you’ll get more than 46,000 hits, many of them dramatic images of the multi-armed succulents silhouetted against Technicolor sunsets. Klett, a former geologist who is celebrated for his images documenting man’s changing relationship with the western landscape, fell into their grasp 22 years ago. “They’re a silent force in the desert,” he relates, “and one can feel their presence. I was conscious of Native American beliefs that saguaros are the souls of their ancestors. So I decided to do some portraits. My methods were simple: Walk around the cactus and look at it from all angles. Choose a vantage point and make a full-length photograph. It was a lot like picking out people to talk to, people who seemed to have an interesting story to tell.” The sort-of-human face on this particular desert denizen is the result of gunfire. Saguaros, alas, make much too easy targets for callous shooters.
The 74 plates in Saguaros, published by Radius Books, were made using a special Polaroid black-and-white film (no longer available) that provides both a quick peel-off positive to check composition and exposure in the field and a fine-grain negative for use in the darkroom. Hence the ragged edges on prized gallery prints by Klett, a professor of art at Arizona State University in Tempe.—Les Line
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