Gerry Badger’s tribute to Lewis Baltz

“It is possibly useful to think of creative photography as a narrow but deep area lying between the cinema and the novel,” Lewis Baltz once said. The life and work of the New Topographics photographer, who died in Paris on November 22 at the age of 69, is recalled by his close friend, the photography critic Gerry Badger.

The first thing to be said about Lewis Baltz is that he was one of the most intelligent of photographic artists. To say that may seem redundant, because any artist in the premier division – and Baltz was certainly in the premier division, up near the top of the table – is going to be intelligent. But there are different kinds of intelligence. Eugène Atget was undoubtedly intelligent, but it is unlikely that it was of the order of Baltz’s, which was prodigious, both in terms of his art, of his artistic milieu, of the other arts, and most importantly, of the world around him, which he regarded with a degree of healthy scepticism.

Baltz was a leading figure in the field of what has come to be called ‘conceptual’ photography.’ Indeed, he was actually the Professor of Conceptual Photography at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland. But the term ‘conceptual’ photography, like ‘documentary’ photography, can be difficult to define, and is a complex beast; not quite a school, not quite a defined approach.

But then Lewis belonged to no school, and in his hands, the conceptual approach certainly was both complex and meaningful, unlike so much contemporary photography that pretends to have a concept where in fact it has little, and is merely a regurgitating of formulaic strategies that lack either intelligence or soul.

And that was another characteristic of Lewis. For much of his career he was a determined minimalist, but while that might suggest – along with the conceptual label – a cool, cerebral approach, that most certainly did not mean a lack of heart or passion. His understated, stripped down, formally elegant pictures burn with an imagistic intensity and seductiveness that belies their spareness. His pictures derive from Lewis’ intelligence and his own passionate involvement with subject and subject-matter. For him, form was always at the service of content.

Baltz came to prominence, like other senior American photographers of his generation, with the renowned 1975 exhibition at George Eastman House, New Topographics, one of the most far reaching of late 20th century photographic exhibitions. In this show, a new generation of landscape photographers was introduced to the public, with Baltz’s name joined by Robert Adams and Stephen Shore.

A conceit was apparent at the New Topographics exhibition Here was a generation of imagemakers moving on from the operatic, transcendental tradition of figures like Ansel Adams, who concentrated upon the grandeur of the ‘natural’ landscape. Instead, the New Topographers explored the ordinariness and banality of the ‘man altered’ landscape – the freeways, suburban malls, tract housing and strip developments that had sprung up all over America since the post-war economic boom and the flight to the suburbs.

These photographers eschewed the overblown romanticism of Ansel Adams’ era, making photographs in a nominally deadpan style, as if taken with an unmediated camera. Their aim was to appear to be “without author or art,” Lewis said. “I wanted it to appear as though the camera was seeing by itself.”

His contribution to the show consisted of a group of small photographs of office developments in Southern California. They were shot in the stark elevational style that characterised the first part of his career – a style that both emphasised the barren functionality, and almost anonymity, of this architecture. Anything could be going on behind these facades, from simple storage to the making of pornographic films.

The lack of overt expression in much of the New Topographical work, especially Baltz’s work, emphasises another crucial point. In the early 1970s, photography was photography, and art was art, and never the twain did meet – but they did here, in prominent and pointed fashion. Baltz’s photography hung alongside the show’s only inclusion from Europe, the ‘typologies’ of Bernd and Hilla Becher. And, although he was not included, the crossover from art was found in the photography of Ed Ruscha, a fundamental influence upon much of the exhibition.

As Lewis said frequently, the early 70s was the moment the world realised it could no longer rely upon the veracity of the photography. Some photographers realised this earlier than others, and it was a liberating experience. As Lewis’s great friend John Gossage said: “You can do anything you like, it’s all fiction.”

The statement chimed with that of another New Topographic contributor, John Schott, who said of Ed Ruscha’s pictures: “They are not statements about the world through art, they are statements about art through the world.”

Something more than the documentary was going on, especially in the imagery of Baltz. They looked at least as pure as documents, but talked about so much more. They lay somewhere between the film and the novel, and drew upon the current art movements like minimalism and conceptualism.

But – and this is extremely important – Baltz was never interested in art for art’s sake. His photography eschewed the documentary, but made a statement about the world. And so he can be seen as a political artist in the best sense, his work evincing great concern about the direction of the world. As he once said: “I always believed that God would destroy L.A. for its sins. Finally, I realized that He had already destroyed it, and then left it around as a warning.”

The work of the 70s depicted a landscape created by those only interested in the bottom line – the profit margin – and then moving on to the results of this uncaring greed in the rubbish dump. These photographs might be shot with a hyaline coolness, but it goes far beyond the irony often ascribed to him. It could, in its way, be called protest photography.

And then, from the mid-80s onwards, Lewis addressing the influence of technology upon ecology and society: “The blurred interaction,” as he termed it, “of humans and machines and taking us deeply into ambiguous cyberworlds.”

The work was very different in concept, generally in the form of large-scale colour installations such as Docile Bodies (1995), and The Politics of Bacteria (1995) and Ronde de Nuit (1993), an installation some 11.5 metres wide by 2.5 metres high. But as Matthew Witkovsky has written, Baltz’s essential concerns remained the same. He was exercised from the beginning: “Over the cancerous spread of our industrially manufactured habitat and how the elements of manufacture can be used to standardize, control, and oppress the inhabitants—ourselves.”

The impact of the 1970s and early 80s work, especially his classic book trio, The New Industrial Parks Near Irvine California (1974), Park City (1980), and San Quentin Point (1986), was so overwhelming that perhaps his later work has been somewhat underestimated. But that will surely change. It will inevitably be reassessed and its quality appreciated as its concerns become more and more self-evident and pertinent.

As a final point, it should be pointed out that Lewis was no slouch in the theoretical department. Texts, a collection of essays and writings published by Steidl in 2012, is essential reading for anyone interested in contemporary art and photography.

It might be a cliché perhaps, and said all too often without much justification – but in this case it can be asserted with complete confidence. In the death of Lewis Baltz, the photographic world has lost a truly major figure.

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