Photographer Willard Clay goes exploring
December 29, 1988
I owe Goggle for reminding me that I wrote this piece, which had escaped my usually diligent clipping and filing. It is a review of yet another effort by a photographer of some skill to make Illinois interesting to look at, which they usually do by shooting the least Illinois parts of it. The review is better than it needed to be even if the book wasn’t, which is why I include it here.
I examined this and kindred books in Nature of Illinois magazine in my review, Illinois in Camera.
Reviewed: Illinois: Images of the Landscape by Willard Clay. Westcliffe Publishers Inc., 1988
Down in central Illinois, people pose this riddle: Why does I-72, which begins at Springfield, end at Champaign-Urbana less than 90 miles away? Because workers got so bored laying concrete day after day with nothing to look at, they refused to pave another mile.
Natural Illinois is so unprepossessing because there seems to be so little nature left in it. There is beauty in Illinois, but it is in hiding, usually at the end of dirt roads or hikers' trails where farmers, road buildings, and subdividers can't get at it.
It was in such places that Willard Clay discovered his handsome new book, Illinois: Images of the Landscape (Westcliffe Publishers Inc., 1988). Clay, an Arizonan by upbringing and a botanist by training, has made a second career as a nature photographer-his work has adorned Arizona Highways magazine and the Audubon and Sierra Club calendars, the nature photographer's equivalent of opening on Broadway-after 11 years as a university instructor.
A book of Illinois nature pictures at first seemed as odd an idea to him as, say, a collection of the great speeches from the Chicago City Council. "My preconceived notion was that Illinois was almost totally developed," recalls Clay, who now lives in Downstate Ottawa with wife and collaborator Kathy Clay. "I thought there was nothing here but corn and bean fields." Upon their arrival in Illinois, in fact, the Clays had to ask state conservation officials and members of the Illinois Nature Conservancy where the nature was.
Where it was was in Illinois's least Illinoisan parts—along the bluff-lined Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, in the canyons of the upper Illinois River, in the floodplains of "Egypt," in the northwestern counties where a little bit of New England escaped the glaciers, and in scattered unplowed fields and relict towns. It is an Illinois few Illinoisans see, a magically strange place of cliff faces and waterfalls and mist-shrouded forests and tupelo swamps.
Yes, tupelo swamps. Among the most popular of the book's 133 images are the half-dozen Clay shot in the Horseshoe Lake Conservation Area in Alexander County, about 400 miles south of Chicago.
In all, Clay displays 27 pictures of southern Illinois, which in every respect is closer to Kentucky than to Cook County, parts of it being an outpost of Gulf Coast climate and its associated flora and fauna. Topographically it is more rugged than any place in the state save the far northwest, which also escaped glaciation. Southern Illinois is one of the few Illinois spots with cliffs tall enough that a person could kill himself by jumping off one and beautiful enough that they could change his mind about doing it.
"Our book contains two-thirds totally natural scenes," Clay notes, a proportion that he says surprises people. The sites of scenes may surprise people too. Though the photos from southern Illinois are the most exotic—Clay worried at first that a book about Illinois can have too many cypress trees in it—it is the places in the populated northern third of the state that prove most pleasing, precisely because their larger setting is so easily dismissed as mundane.
No reader who sees Clay's versions of Pilcher Park or Messenger Woods in Will County or Cook County's Gensburg-Markham prairie or Lake County's Volo Bog will go on thinking of greater Chicago solely in terms of skyscrapers and derelict factories. Clay captures especially well the poetry of round stones, still water, and wildflowers at Illinois Beach State Park, whose spareness seems almost elegant compared with the lush exuberance of landscapes elsewhere in the state.
But it was in the Clays' home county of LaSalle and adjoining counties that nearly half of the book's photos were taken. The district has never been mistaken for the Yosemite Valley, but in this case Clay cannot be accused of sacrificing art to chauvinism. For example, his studies of the clear-water pools and rock grottoes that grace the remoter reaches of Starved Rock and Matthiesson State Parks are revelatory. What you see, we learn again, depends on what you look for.
Every camera bug feels the urge to commit nature photography; if the sun never sets again, we have ten million snapshots of it in America's closets to remember it by. Nature photography at Clay's level of excellence owes something to the professional's superior technology (he uses a Cambo 4x5 view camera) and something to his willingness to get up earlier, drive farther, climb higher. And shiver with less complaining. Clay's winter scenes, such as one showing a filigree of ice adorning a stream riffle, will instruct those who see the winter landscape only as something they have to shovel.
Ultimately, of course, it is the eye behind the camera that makes the difference. Clay's hero is the Winnetka-born Eliot Porter, who pioneered what might be called soft-core color nature photography so lush, so sensual that its appeal is almost prurient.
Porter's is a de-sentimentalized nature (animals are almost never portrayed, an interesting rejection of Bambi-ism), which has been rarefied and removed to the realm of the aesthetic. Clay honors the unwritten injunctions of the style, concentrating on the juxtapositions of form and color and shunning the pastoral or the polemic.
Even his portraits of man-made objects do not violate the genre's categories, for all their being unnatural; these barns and 19th century buildings were made for the most part from indigenous materials and by now look as if they grew out of the earth instead of being placed upon it.
Clay is too good a photographer to take a bad picture, although he can take a dull one. A few of his still lifes lack an enlivening wit; if artifice alone is not enough to make art, neither is accident. His scenes of sprouting corn and spreading soybeans are as interesting as they can be, which isn't very. The best nature pictures hint at an order only dimly perceived, and there is nothing mysterious about the order imposed on a field by a six-row corn planter.
Fortunately such digressions are not numerous. "Landscape sense includes things that are man-made," Clay explains. "Every nature photo is a landscape photo, but not every landscape photo is a nature photo."
The act of photography is selective and thus distorting, and the line between flattering a subject and falsifying it is a fine one. Clay concedes that he is vulnerable to the charge that his Illinois is not the "real" one. The fact that his Illinois is not representative does not make it any less beautiful, however. "I was absolutely stunned by the quality of the scenic beauty in the state," he says. He spent one and a half years shooting "Illinois" and filled the book after visiting only a third of the sites on his must-see list.
It might not be so easy next time. Not all the state's surviving natural areas are under official protection. (Seven such areas await designation as wilderness areas as in southern Illinois's Shawnee National Forest alone, for instance.) Even those areas no longer at risk of destruction have been degraded by adjacent developments or by visitors. Speaking to the recent annual conference of the Illinois Environmental Council, Clay recounted how, before he could shoot them, he had to sweep the public areas he visited clean of beer cans and other debris. Illinois's parks and preserves, he said, are the dirtiest he has seen.
"It's frightening to see how rapidly what is left is disappearing," Clay says. "Working on this book stirred a desire to preserve what's left. It's become the most emotional project I've been involved with. We're on a mission now." Clay has thus become a reluctant propagandist on behalf of his own trade, a nature photographer without any nature to photograph is not a busy nature photographer. "I consider my work to be artistic," he says. "If my work becomes instructive, that pleases me, but it isn't what I set out to do."
Surprise, even awe, is how people react to Clay's pictures of untrammeled nature. How might they react had he not been such a fastidious groundskeeper and left a few of those beer cans at the foot of this waterfall? Or left the fast-food wrappers floating in one of his shady pools? Anger, probably-the same anger he felt when he encountered such vandalism. The results would have been less pristine as art but vastly more potent as journalism. When it comes to rousing people to protect what is left of the unsimplified, unspoiled Illinois, one beer can might be worth a thousand words. ●
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