San Francisco

Lewis Baltz

Grapestake Gallery

Since his “New Industrial Parks near Irvine, CA” series, Lewis Baltz’s work has grown more expansive in content and at the same time more impartial in description. “Industrial Parks” brought a formalist vision to photography; stark images displayed Minimalist or reductivist interests, immediately linking them to mainstream art concerns. However, in these pictures the photographer emphasized geometric structuring to the point that attitudes central to the panoramic and traditional landscape remained unexplored.

In the “Nevada” portfolio, 15 images shot in counties surrounding Reno, topographic information is approached with the same consideration for tonal value and detail that typified his earlier work. But “Nevada”’s vast horizontal bands of sky and land suggest the analytic vision that the 19th-century photographer/explorers brought to the Western landscape. In several panoramic views, which form the nucleus of “Nevada,” dense areas are juxtaposed with expanses of clear sky. Houses and subdivisions are accentuated by black hills and distant mountain ranges. The white, undetailed sky, which in the 19th century was a limitation of orthochromatic film, becomes a formal convention for Baltz. In these pictures the photographer resurrects the unstylized landscape sensibility that existed prior to the personal, stylistic conceits that have dominated 20th-century photography.

Baltz’s evolution has taken him from photographic forms which were almost too compatible with mainstream art to a way of seeing that attempts to regain the purely descriptive nature of the medium. Of course within this methodology variables such as camera placement, quality of light and editing remain. With the exception of one photograph of a broken fluorescent tube, these pictures employ a camera angle that places the horizon line near the center of the image. Lighting, the most subjective device, permits dark forms to cross the topography and encircle subdivisions in an almost arbitrary fashion. Finally, the editing presents 15 distinct images in which thematic and formal considerations interact as an orchestrated ensemble.

Baltz offers a rendition of the landscape in which the synthetic and natural are seen as a single unit. Tract houses nestle into the mountains, and the pieces of fluorescent tube merge with the dirt and rock. While “Nevada” is unemotional, it is incredibly sensual. Although specific to one locale, it is anonymous to the point that several images might have been made anywhere in the Western United States. The subject could, of course, lend itself to social posturing, but there is no such statement being made. While Baltz emphasizes both fine detail and tonal concern, to see these pictures solely as formal investigations is to miss the provocative questions they raise regarding veracity and personal assumption in photographic vision.

Hal Fischer

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