Feb/Mar 2012

Desolation Angles

An influential photographer depicts the deadpan allure of postindustrial landscapes

Barry Schwabsky


Click to enlarge

Lewis Baltz, Foundation Construction, Many Warehouses, 2891 Kelvin, Irvine, 1974, gelatin silver print, 6 x 9".

LEWIS BALTZ WILL PROBABLY always be associated with an exhibition that very few people ever saw, 1975’s “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape”—or at least with its title, which seems to encapsulate both the subject matter (landscape in the widest possible context) and the stance (a quasi-scientific objectivity). The aesthetic of the New Topographics was embodied not only in Baltz’s work, but in that of many of the nine other photographers included in the show, among them Robert Adams and Joe Deal. The show has been profoundly influential, especially through what its curator, William Jenkins, called the “stylistic anonymity” he claimed these photographers shared; its impact on the Düsseldorf School of photographers, former students of Bernd and Hilla Becher, the only non-Americans included in “New Topographics,” is especially patent. Looking at the original catalogue issued by the International Museum of Photography and Film at the George Eastman House in Rochester (it has been handily reprinted within the much larger catalogue for a reprise of the exhibition, which opened at the same venue in 2009 and recently concluded a two-and-a-half-year-long tour of the United States and Europe), Baltz’s pictures seem distinct from the others, though in subtler ways than Stephen Shore’s use of color or the Bechers’ typological groupings. Part of that difference lies in the construction of Baltz’s images: Most of the other photographs are taken from a fairly high vantage point, with the camera tilted downward on the scene. Only the Bechers shoot their subjects as straight on as Baltz. At the same time, Baltz uses a wider format than any of the others (with the exception of Henry Wessel Jr.). As a result, Baltz’s images emphasize horizontality, but this horizontality does not imply an expansive view. For the purpose of any presumed “topographics,” Deal’s images, for instance, offer far more information about the context in which the buildings he’s photographed are situated, and therefore about the “man-altered landscape” of the exhibition’s subtitle.

By contrast, Baltz’s images for “New Topographics”—all taken from his 1974 series “The New Industrial Parks near Irvine, California”—pointedly present a lack of information. “You don’t know whether they’re manufacturing pantyhose or megadeath,” Baltz famously said of these weirdly anonymous buildings. I know I should find this creepy, and in real life I do, but looking at these photographs I feel something else: The buildings in the pictures—as opposed to the actual buildings they’re pictures of—have no inside; nothing happens there because (to hijack Gertrude Stein’s phrase) there’s no there there.

The primary theme of these photographs, with their head-on views of inert, blank, opaque walls or equally inert, blank, opaque vistas, might finally be described as that of facing something that does not appear to be facing us. If the photograph is supposed to be a view onto reality, here we observe a reality that only turns its back. Or maybe it’s not even right to speak of a back to what has no front: Baltz seems to show us a verso with no recto—albeit an incredibly detailed verso. If one of the images could be taken as paradigmatic, it would probably be Foundation Construction, Many Warehouses, 2891 Kelvin, Irvine. With the fore- and middle-ground terrain largely taken up by the concrete fields of the foundation, uninflected except for a scattered bristling of pipes, electrical ducts, and other such utility items, whatever “place” was once here has been effectively effaced, yet not replaced with anything specific. And while we can see far into the distance, with some shadowy hills at the horizon and just the thinnest sliver of cityscape at their feet, it’s as if the habitable part of the terrain has been squeezed into the narrowest zone at the greatest possible distance.

Just as often, Baltz’s images of this period feature a building in the foreground that seems to block nearly everything else out. Consider South Wall, Unoccupied Industrial Structure, 16812 Milliken, Irvine, with its almost terrifyingly featureless white wall, its blank geometry countered by nothing much other than a pathetically scrawny bare tree in the foreground, “a tree you could not even hang yourself on,” as Samuel Beckett said of the one he imagined for the set of Godot. When more detail is included in Baltz’s pictures, it is typically by an indirect route—in South Wall, Mazda Motors, 2121 East Main Street, Irvine, the central portion is given over to the car dealership’s highly reflective plate-glass windows, which reflect the road in front of them like a state trooper’s dark glasses.

The affect of this work is reserved, even forbidding. For that reason, the prospect of finding it handily encapsulated in a boxed set of ten handsomely produced books is enticing: Finally, it seems, one is going to be able to get at once a wide-ranging overview and a minute grasp of Baltz’s magisterial oeuvre—it will be possible to feel in control of it at last.

Well, think again. This massive gray block of books stands there as inscrutably as any of Baltz’s single images. Of course, this does not mean that the set is any less essential to anyone who hopes to understand what photography means for art today—a subject on which Baltz’s work offers much material for reflection and no glib answers. His uncompromising, desolately beautiful images have the power to rearrange our notions of the distinction between the construction of reality and its perception, between art and document. But still, I have to register some complaints with the set—specifically, with its relative lack of texts. Some of the volumes come equipped with essayistic accompaniment; others don’t. None gives an overview of the artist’s career or attempts to track the development of his art. And particularly because Baltz’s art is so reticent, that’s something you can’t get from the images alone; especially in retrospect, they need the accompaniment of the historical narrative that helps explain the meaning of the artist’s crucial decisions. Not surprisingly, the artist himself is not the person best equipped to historicize his own accomplishment, which may be why a project that reflects Baltz’s involvement as deeply as this box set seems to—and there is no editor credited—can be as frustrating as these books sometimes are. At the very least, a strong editor would have considered the viewer’s desire to know, where possible, when any given image was produced—or when the series it’s been folded into was compiled—but even this information is often missing. No amount of searching through the volume titled Near Reno will tell you, for instance, when its fourteen harsh images of man-made debris scarring the desert were taken. And shouldn’t there be some clue as to how Baltz’s renowned black-and-white work of the 1970s and ’80s connects—if in fact it does—to his less familiar work of recent decades, site-specific installations using photographic imagery in color? The last of the volumes in this set, Sites of Technology, consists of color work from 1989 to 1991, which is presumably a transition to the later phase of Baltz’s career, but here it seems instead a strange sort of coda.

Click to enlarge

Lewis Baltz, South Wall, Mazda Motors, 2121 East Main Street, Irvine, 1974, gelatin silver print, 6 x 9".

If texts that are missing constitute one problem, the texts that are there create others. Most of them share a peculiar bias. While I presume this reflects the artist’s wishes, I can’t help but find it troubling and misleading. A main purpose of many of the essays is to extricate Baltz from the ranks of mere photographers and establish his bona fides as an artist tout court. Now, these writers are not conjuring these connections to the work of prominent painters, sculptors, and Conceptual artists out of thin air; the connections are there. They become misleading only to the extent that such references are being used to shove aside equally if not more pertinent connections to specific traditions of photography. Thus, in his afterword to the earliest works Baltz accepts as part of his oeuvre, which he calls The Prototype Works (spanning the years 1967–76), Matthew S. Witkovsky asserts that, already as a student, the artist’s “concerns . . . and intellectual affinities . . . related only glancingly to fine photography.” Witkovsky thus prefers to discern references to painters and sculptors like Robert Mangold, Barnett Newman, Ed Ruscha, Bruce Nauman, Donald Judd, Alain [sic] Saret, Barry Le Va, Robert Morris, and Richard Serra (all in just one paragraph) rather than to anyone known primarily as a photographer. There’s an ambivalence hidden in the title of Witkovsky’s essay, “Photography’s Objecthood,” with its citation of Michael Fried’s famous 1967 essay “Art and Objecthood.” The title simultaneously holds out the promise that Baltz was delving into something specific to photography, while leaving open the less appetizing possibility that he might have been doing no more than recapitulating a well-known sculptural issue in a photographic idiom. And yet Witkovsky, who is really a shrewd critic, nonetheless provides some prime references for an analysis of Baltz’s work as a photographer even in the process of denying it; for instance, in discussing Baltz’s work in terms of a meditation on American identity, he specifies that Baltz’s “is not, however, the Americanness of Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams, or even Walker Evans or Robert Frank.” Witkovsky is certainly correct in this statement, but he wants to avoid the concomitant realization that Baltz’s disagreement with the American photographic tradition is constitutive for his oeuvre—the source of his anxiety of influence, to borrow Harold Bloom’s phrase. This is something that’s been addressed by one of Baltz’s most important contemporaries, Jeff Wall, who’s spoken of his interest, in the mid-1970s, in the way artists like Ruscha, Dan Graham, and Robert Smithson were using photography as a way of “indirectly reacting to . . . classic photography” and exemplified “the common defense mechanism of artists when they are confronted with the work of their betters.” Just as much as with Wall, Baltz’s fascination with Ruscha and the others seems a sort of productive evasion of his real debts within the photographic tradition. Although Baltz’s way of using Conceptual art to frame a creative response to classic photography was worlds apart from Wall’s, it’s just as true that a genuine appreciation of his achievement depends more on an understanding of his relation to, say, Evans and Eugène Atget than these essayists allow.

Witkovsky is not the only one of the commentators in these volumes who labors to find resemblances to Baltz’s contemporaries in painting and sculpture. Hubertus von Amelunxen warns us not to see Baltz as part of “the historical sequence from Charles Sheeler, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander to Bernd and Hilla Becher” but rather alongside “contemporaries like Sol LeWitt or Donald Judd, Ed Ruscha, Robert Smithson.” Wolfgang Scheppe,in his afterword to a separately republished volume devoted to another important series by Baltz, 1989’s “Candlestick Point,” argues for Baltz as an “artist working with photography” rather than a photographer, while citing a statement from Baltz that actually shows a downright Greenbergian focus on photography as a self-critical medium: “I believed it was necessary to investigate photography, dismantle it, jettison all the non-essential components, and begin again with a stripped down but more powerful idea of what is, or could be ‘photographic.’” In fact, the invidious way these authors treat the distinction between photography and the broader realm of art seems to have more to do with what might be called the social positioning of Baltz’s work than anything else—they believe that it has more value if it is called art than if it is called photography.

Baltz may believe that, too—it seems he has his problems with the photography world, in any case. As he said in a recent interview with Witkovsky (not for these books but for the Archives of American Art): “I didn’t like the world of photography. I didn’t like the culture of photography. I feel the same way today.” It would have been interesting, especially for those who don’t know the “world of photography” well, to have had a more articulated account of just what Baltz doesn’t like about it. But what’s of more immediate interest is that he is contrasting his dislike of the photography scene with its opposite: “I loved the medium—as a medium.” What he loves, or once loved, is making photographs. To downplay this primary engagement with the medium is to misrepresent, I suspect, the nature of Baltz’s struggle with and against photographic tradition. It is to neglect the fact that if his work represents a break—a “seismic shift,” as a recent exhibition at UC Riverside would have it—it is a break within rather than away from photography, in the form of a radically chastened sense of how it might be used to confront reality.

Of course, and despite their protestations, the essayists in Works know all this. Consider Witkovsky’s account of how Baltz printed his early works: “After killing the contrast in his negatives, Baltz laboriously tested local alterations in enlargement, over- or under-exposing portions of the image surface in roughly five to twenty-five separate steps to reintroduce contrast in a selective manner. The replacement of shadows, an indication of external light sources, with the suggestion of an inner luminosity, was one goal; saturation of tones was another.” So while there is undoubtedly a flat, deadpan quality to Baltz’s photographs, it is a very different kind than that found in the books of Ruscha or in magazine works like Graham’s Homes for America or Smithson’s Monuments of Passaic—works that do, of course, present intriguing parallels with Baltz’s work. And the most evident of these differences is that Ruscha, Graham, and Smithson present photomechanical reproductions made from commercially developed prints. Their deadpan is anonymous, industrial, and abstract; Baltz’s is obsessively crafted through a series of very specific technical decisions—and on those decisions depends not only the look, but the meaning of his images.

In his practice, Baltz delved into a kind of technical irony by using a camera that was more suited to handheld use as a device for the spontaneous capture of transient information—in street photography, for example—but instead creating images of absolute stillness (such as would more likely have been made with a view camera, as the Bechers used). When I asked a photographer friend for further clarification of how this might have been done, he said, “To make it practical he used industrial copy film . . . designed for graphic reproduction. The film’s low-light sensitivity required long exposures and a tripod, lending the pictures their still, staring aspect. The film’s high contrast meant he had to figure out artisan development procedures along lines associated with the work of photographers like Ansel Adams and early and midcentury technical enthusiasts.” In a sense, Baltz is in agreement with the photographic tradition that, in the darkroom, photography is much more like painting than it appears to be—not an all-at-once, allover conceptual choice, but the sum of a multitude of step-by-step choices—whereas many Conceptual artists were interested in giving all art the instantaneousness of the commercially developed snapshot. “The machine that makes the art,” as LeWitt called the artist’s idea, would thus be the intellectual equivalent of the Kodak Brownie. Baltz crossed paths with the Conceptualists while traveling in a different direction. To the extent that he did succeed in producing a form of photography that was more like “art” (that is, like painting, sculpture, and Conceptual art), this was possible in part because the painters, sculptors, and Conceptual artists of the time were trying to make their work more like photography—only not the sort of photography that Baltz actually practiced.

Is the painstaking and ironically traditional process Baltz used in making his images of the late 1960s and early ’70s the same one he continued to use through the remainder of the decade and on into the ’80s? Since the other commentators don’t provide even that much technical background, it is hard to know for sure. But he must have used something like it, for as long as he was involved in black-and-white photography, Baltz followed the same narrow path—to be sure, finding ever-increasing complexity and depth, but without ever diverting from it. Even as he went on to explore the use of more glancing viewpoints and more elaborate compositions in Nevada (1977), even as he eventually took his camera indoors, for instance in the 1980 “Park City” series, he maintained the same odd sense of confrontation and exteriority. The photographer is not, as one would have thought, in the midst of the world, but at its edge—and its edge is wherever he is. The reality he portrays is opaque but paper thin. All the care put into making these images seems to exist only to convince us that there is no one on this side of the camera, the one that the photographer and the viewer are ordinarily supposed to share—that photography is an affair for ghosts, for beings without a shadow and no reflection. Look again at South Wall, Mazda Motors, 2121 East Main Street, Irvine—the building’s plate-glass windows reflect everything that faces them with brutal clarity. And I don’t see anyone there taking its picture.

Barry Schwabsky is The Nation's art critic and coeditor of international reviews for Artforum.

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