Summer 2001

The God Effect: An Interview with John Cliett

Picturing Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field

Jeffrey Kastner and John Cliett

On 1 November 1977, Walter De Maria completed The Lightning Field, a monumental array of four hundred polished stainless steel poles arranged in a rectangular grid one mile by one kilometer in size. The following year, New York–based photographer John Cliett moved to the site of the work in the remote western New Mexico countryside near the town of Quemado, and spent the summer taking pictures of it. Over the next few months—and during another stay the next year—Cliett would shoot hundreds of pictures of The Lightning Field.

As artifacts, Cliett’s photographs, which were commissioned by De Maria and the Dia Foundation in New York, rank among the most indelible images in post-war American art, remarkable depictions of a remarkable artistic gesture. They also constitute a vivid exemplar of the complex relationships between such gestures and the ways in which they are documented and disseminated, relationships made even more slippery and contingent by the physical and theoretical conditions of The Lightning Field.

From the beginning, access to The Lightning Field has been tightly monitored by the administrative machine surrounding the project. Visitors to the site are required to spend the night and are not allowed to take photographs during their stay. Indeed the entire project is predicated on the viewer’s personal physical experience of the work in its location. Yet, at the same time, the artist and his patrons have also sought to stake out a particular presence in the wider discourse of contemporary art for The Lightning Field, a goal they have accomplished in part through a carefully orchestrated approach to photographic documentation.

Cliett worked from the beginning with De Maria on formulating the scheme for photographing The Lightning Field; many of the most often-reproduced images of the Field, including those which famously introduced it to the art world in the pages of the April 1980 issue of Artforum magazine, come from his two summer sessions. Indeed, that so many viewers have come to know The Lightning Field through these images—a fraction of the total he took, strategically promulgated over the years by the artist and Dia—emphasizes their essential role in the artist’s plan for shaping the image and promoting the “idea” of the work. Jeffrey Kastner spoke to Cliett by phone in April 2001 about photographing The Lightning Field.

Cabinet: How did you get involved with De Maria?

John Cliett: Let me ask you a question. Have you ever been to The Lightning Field?

I never have been to The Lightning Field, which I think is part of the reason I’m so intrigued by it. Even though this is a work that was expressly designed to be experienced physically, it exists in the public imagination almost entirely through your images of it.

Well, that’s not necessarily true. Thousands of people have been there.

That’s true, thousands of people have been there, but millions of people haven’t. It’s fair to say at least that your images are an important vehicle through which people have come to know The Lightning Field, even if they’re not the only way.

Let me tell you a story. I’m at The Lightning Field in July of 1979, hired by the Dia Foundation to take pictures. At the time, I was what you would call a self-educated advanced amateur. I had met Walter and he hired me to do the research on how The Lightning Field would be photographed. A lot of famous people like Ansel Adams had been approached, but they would not allow the foundation to control the photographs, and I worked myself into the situation as somebody who was willing to agree to the deal with the copyright.

So that was part of the deal on the front end.

[laughs] That was a big, big part of the deal. So, I’m out at The Lightning Field and I’m living out there in a trailer. Everybody’s gone to town and I’m there alone. So Robert Weathers, who I think is still the caretaker guy, brought this woman visitor back. She was from Los Angeles and all by herself. We talked to her a little bit, but not too much. She said she had been there before and so we said, “Okay. You know the drill.” She goes into the cabin.

It was a really socked-in day. The clouds were maybe a thousand feet above the ground. You couldn’t see the sun, there was a drizzling rain—you could barely see the field, it was almost like it was engulfed in mist from the light rain and low clouds, and I’m thinking, “Well, you know, this really isn’t going to be a big sunset.” [laughs] And then I see this woman come out of the cabin and she puts on a windbreaker and walks out toward the western part of the field.

So I got into the truck and I went out and sort of circled around behind the woman and saw that she sat down on this rise on the western edge of the field to wait for the sunset. But I knew there was very little chance of anything happening, because the sky was just completely socked-in. You couldn’t even see the tops of the Datil Mountains in the distance. And I thought, “Hey, they’re paying me,” so I got out the camera and put a Grafmatic Back [a multi-shot film holder] in my pocket and another couple of pieces of sheet film in the other pockets and I tried to sneak around behind the woman. I thought I’d take a picture of this person contemplating the field, and I set up the cameras and put the Grafmatic Back in and took a picture.

And I stood there and all of sudden, a hole opened up in the ceiling and some light came through, what I call the God Effect. And the light comes down, big rays, and this was in the east, behind the field and the woman. And the light shifted around and all of a sudden, the whole Lightning Field lit up and the ceiling was so low that the sky just started to turn all these incredible colors. It looked like a Rothko painting, with little misty clouds of gold falling out and the whole field was lit up and it was almost like the ground was reflected in the clouds. The most amazing scene. So I started taking pictures and I took one and pulled out the Grafmatic Back to take the next one, and it jammed in the open position. I struggled with it for ten, fifteen seconds and pulled the whole thing out and threw it in the ground and put in another piece of film. And it all went away. The hole closed up and it all went away.

You never got an image of it.

Never got an image. The woman got up and walked back to the cabin. I picked up the stuff off the ground and drove back. By this time Helen Winkler, Robert Fosdick, and Elizabeth Turner had returned and they were sitting in the kitchen. I came in and I said, “Did you see that?” And they said “What?” And the woman came into the cabin and walked into the kitchen and she said, “Did you see that?” And they said “What?” And she said, “I know you’re out here all the time and you must be pretty jaded, but that was amazing.” And then that night at dinner I discovered that the woman had been to The Lightning Field previously and she had come with her husband who was an executive in Los Angeles. But something happened, and he had to leave. They called and he had to be driven in the middle of the night. And this woman had decided to come back on her birthday. She arrived in gloomy conditions, walked out, sat down and got her own private work of art. And that’s what The Lightning Field really is. Those moments. The double rainbow, the lightning moments. The fog in the morning. The idea behind the piece is that you’re alone, you’re isolated, it’s for you only and it’s unique for each person. And that brings up the subject of what you called these iconic pictures. The problem from the beginning was that the people at Dia and Walter did not want the pictures to represent the work.

What did they want?

The pictures were a necessity. Their position was that you can’t have art without pictures. My goal was a very competitive one, which was to make pictures that were so astounding that nobody would ever be able to make a 
better one. That the pictures would overwhelm the work: that was my goal. Obviously everybody knew that the big picture was going to be lighting in the east with the sunset. We had scientists build special triggers to photograph lightning in the daytime.

Because De Maria and Dia wanted lightning in the images?

Oh, they wanted lightning in the pictures, definitely. And there was lightning in the area a lot. So Walter and I went up to Albany to talk to Richard Orville, who was a scientist for NASA responsible for studying lightning with regard to space launches at Cape Canaveral. He was the guy who developed the trigger we used. The trigger had a sensor that picked up a specific wavelength of light that was present in lighting, but not in other surrounding light. And then we had a group of cameras connected to the trigger. And it had a delay; it would get a sense and it would fire the camera and then it would wait a certain amount of time. You could adjust it. We had very good success with this trigger, because most photos you see of lightning, and the one of The Lightning Field at sunset that everybody knows, are made with one-minute exposures. But when you’re taking a picture in the middle of afternoon, you might be limited to a half-second, so you have to have something to trigger the camera.

You have mentioned before that you were struck by lighting?

Yes. That particular day, the day of the big pictures—the one with the single branching thing and the double—there were, I think, five storms. I remember that particular day; I shot every piece of film I had. It was a very busy day. In the middle of the day, a storm came over the field and it struck my vehicle. It was like a bomb went off. I got this horrible headache and all of the polarities on the camera were reversed from positive to negative. And the radio burned out. So I know it hit the truck, or if not directly, at least a pole in the area. At the time it struck, it was raining so hard you couldn’t see.

What happened when you returned to New York? Did you participate in the process of choosing the images?

Oh yeah, we worked on the pictures together. There was a big quest to get pictures of lightning. And the first really good result we got was a picture I call the triple strike, three strikes in the daytime—with sort of one singular pole and the rest of the field in the background. And that was an interesting photograph, because Walter, Robert Fosdick, who was the guy who built The Lightning Field, and I were all there in the truck. And then we had that really big day. I was down to like three pieces of film and the lightning came really close and I was like, “Fuck it!” and I got out the truck and set up the camera in the open air and stopped the lens all the way down and put the shutter on one minute, right? And I hit the shutter release and said, “Do it! Do it!” I was screaming, “Come on and get me!” It was pounding across the edge of the field—BLAM! BLAM! And I’m yelling, “Do it! Do it ! Do it!” [laughs] And those two pictures were taken in succession. Straight photography, just standing there.

And all of this was straight photography? None of it was composite?

Nope. Nothing.

And they all belong to the Dia and Walter?

They all belong to them. And there are hundreds and hundreds of pictures. Rainbows, things that have never been published. For example, there was one that’s like a regular blue sky, with the clouds with the dirty bottoms, and a branched lighting strike is coming out and it’s like broad daylight. And I remember when Orville saw that, he said that was probably the best picture of lightning in the daytime that had ever been taken. It was out of a clear blue sky. That’s my favorite.

How do you feel about that fact that, effectively, you don’t have any access to what are arguably the most famous photographs you ever took?

I know they’ve made a lot of money off them. [laughs] At the time this all happened, we had two goals. One was Life magazine, and the other was the big billboard in Grand Central Station. And we had the deal with Life. Actually, the pictures that appeared in Artforum were the second-choice pictures. There were even better pictures for Life. But Walter pulled the plug on the whole thing. Life was really pressing Walter. They wanted him to pose with the piece, they wanted to send their own photographers. And he felt like the people from Life just were looking at it from sort of a sensationalistic point of view. Life magazine had a picture in the back called the Endpaper, and there was one of a moose lying on the hood of a car. And it said at the bottom of the picture what had happened to the moose—everybody was trying to get the moose off the car on the freeway, and the moose freaked out and ran in front of a car and was killed. And Walter saw that picture and said, “I’m not going to be a moose on the hood of a car.” [laughs] He pulled the plug on seven pages of Life magazine! Later, they went into Stern in Europe.

You said you wanted to try to overwhelm the work with your pictures. Did you?

I never told them that. And it wasn’t that I wanted to overwhelm the work. I wanted to define the work, to make something no one would ever be able to challenge. You have to understand, and I totally agree with Walter and the reason I told you the story about the woman and all, was to bring up that point most indelibly: Walter’s work is designed to create an environment where a viewer can have a highly personal relationship with a work of art that is completely unique to each individual. And that’s an absolutely brilliant concept. Now the fact that I got all fired up and tried to do a Pink Floyd album cover, that’s okay. And it certainly hasn’t hurt the Field in my opinion. But it is unfortunate that those pictures have become such an iconic idea of it.

In some ways, the photographs created their own problem, didn’t they? Because everyone was so keen to get dramatic images of lightning that they created the expectation…

It wasn’t a problem. They wanted to do the best possible job they could do to get some photographs that were obviously going to be needed. With respect to the copyright, if you control the picture of a work of art, you will control everything that’s said about it, because nobody will publish an article without pictures. So you get the right to pick, and that’s a very powerful thing.

And that’s something that De Maria has exercised over the years.

And rightly so. When a description of the artwork was first sent to the Library of Congress to get a copyright, they wrote back to Walter and said it wasn’t artistic enough to be considered a work of art. And Walter sent the pictures from Artforum and said, “What are you talking about?!” And they said, “Okay, you get the copyright.”

They made this cheesy movie with Polly Bergen about a cult in New Mexico, with The Lightning Field, and they made a crummy Hollywood mock-up with these poles. It was going to be called The Lightning Field! It was a made-for-TV movie, but Walter found out about it and because The Lightning Field had been copyrighted, Walter was able to make the producers change the title. We had guys from Omni magazine show up like some kind of paparazzi, jumping out of cars and running all over the place with cameras and all this stuff. There was a lot of trouble.

So De Maria got an early lesson in how the work might be treated by the popular media.

Oh yeah, he was very aware of that. And I think we wanted to have it regarded seriously, to tone it down. I’ve known and worked for a lot of these artists. And Walter has integrity with a capital “I.” The guy lives a very modest existence, and puts everything into his work. He keeps at it and he doesn’t get a lot of press, but I would say he is the greatest monumental sculptor of the twentieth century.

There’s a movie about Michael Heizer by the critic Rainer Crone where De Maria comes on and calls Heizer “the best sculptor in the world right now.” But it’s also clear that there’s a lot of mutual admiration between Heizer and De Maria, who are both very prickly guys in terms of their relationship to the press and to the critical apparatus of art, such as it is.

Well, they basically came up with the whole thing between the two of them. Listen, I want you to juxtapose anything you say about the pictures with the story I told you about the woman. Because that’s really about the meaning of it for me. I’m sure that Walter would appreciate it if you make it clear that the relationship of artwork and photography is a difficult relationship, because it’s not like Gursky going in and taking a picture of a Pollock painting. And in a way, the pictures can contribute to it, if you just get over that one spectacular picture and look at the broad range. If you could ever get to Walter’s place and look at the notebooks, there’s just page after page after page of pictures.

A series of illustrations commissioned by Cabinet, in which artists were asked to make impromptu sketches of Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field based on their memories of photographs of it they have seen.

John Cliett is a photographer based in New York City.

Jeffrey Kastner is an editor of Cabinet. He also writes on contemporary art and culture for the Economist and the New York Times. He lives in New York.

If you’ve enjoyed the free articles that we offer on our site, please consider subscribing to our nonprofit magazine. You get twelve online issues and unlimited access to all our archives.