THERE IS A BOOK CALLED, simply, Saguaros, nothing but black and white photos of one species of cactus that grows almost entirely in Arizona. Sounds tedious, but wait until you see it.
Each large page presents a single specimen, a green desert beast thirty, forty feet tall. Missionary saguaros, hunchback saguaros. Their one-ton arms go this way and that, some wrapping around themselves in a state of seeming self-adoration. Cacti point at each other accusingly: arguments of saguaros, exaltations of them. They stand de-fleshed and crucified against the sky, while some are caught like dancers alive and elegant. For those who know the saguaro only from movie sets — perfectly straight and balanced like soldiers marching across the desert — these photos will come as a shock. The saguaro as seen by photographer Mark Klett is more on par with Dr. Seuss than John Wayne. Crowned with flowers, twisted from age, dying from gunshots and woodpeckers, the cacti in this book are the real things.
Have you ever seen a dead one, a saguaro turning into a file of wooden ribs? Have you seen one dipping its arms to the ground? This book is a floral masterpiece showing exactly what the saguaro, the statuesque god of the Sonoran Desert, looks like, warts and all. Myself, I fell in love with the book. But I am Arizona born and raised, and the saguaro is implanted firmly in my psyche. Is this book for anyone else? The answer is a clear yes, of course, definitely. It is like an Andy Goldsworthy book, but without Andy Goldsworthy. No human touch was needed but for the camera and a parade of surreal and sometimes grotesque shapes.
Klett, a desert-worn traveler and member of the faculty at Arizona State University’s School of Art, has been widely exhibited around the country. Originally trained as a geologist, and with a master of fine arts in photography from the State University of New York at Buffalo, Klett has a strikingly natural eye. He has given the saguaro full stage, bleeding each one to the rough edges of its negative so that none of the original frame is missing.
Because the photos come without titles, I was tempted to name each cactus: Strongman; One-Hundred-Faces; Died-In-Its-Sleep. But the names started sounding cheap, and I am glad Klett did not do this himself. Any typeset word on his pages would be a defacement. There are not even page numbers (images are referenced by plate numbers in the back of the book). In fact, the cover of the book is nothing but a single cactus, and it is easy to miss the faint title and see only a picture of the desert pierced by a single, green gnomon. If you want some outlandish piece of nature sitting on your coffee table, this is it.
For those who crave words, an expressive and informative essay by Greg McNamee, one of the foremost writers of the Desert Southwest, follows the images. McNamee delivers the perfect volume, relaying to readers bits of cultural and natural history about the saguaro. It was wise to put this in the back of the book. The front has no introduction and no photographer’s note. It begins with a cactus, and that is all that is needed. When I turn the last page and there is not another photo, I am disappointed. I want more. I want to rise and walk into the desert.