New York

Lewis Baltz

Castelli Graphics

Park City, Utah, was once a mining town and is now the site of a ski-resort development. It is a thoroughly used place. In 1978 and ’79 Lewis Baltz was there to record its development, and “Park City,” a portfolio of 102 photographs, is his record. As seen in these photos (which are free of any rhetorical protest), Park City’s physical dislocation is a psychological one as well.

We first see Park City from above, but it appears as a panorama without prospect—as part landscape and part site. Our very introduction dislocates us. In the next photos we are down at the level of the site, but on its edge: the earth is levelled, and there is no foreground, no way to connect spaces or to get across them. In the succeeding photos we are even further towards its edge; earth is massed high, and there is no mid-ground, no way to get out.

In the first of these photographs, Baltz is after a perspective—he circles, surveys and almost stalks, but the site refuses to be read as a scene, so orientation is difficult. It is most elusive, curiously, when he is actually within it. Berms and banks block the view, tracks and debris confound any reading; the houses act more as obstacles than as elements of order. In a sense, Baltz is an order-maker who is repelled by the site’s chaos, so he must go out again and again. On its edge, the site is seen for what it is: a subdivision that subtracts the land, a development that is in fact a devolution.

From the edge, Baltz moves inside the houses, but the conditions there are much the same. As spaces, the interiors make no more sense than the landscapes—inside and outside, private and public are indistinct. Nature, effaced outside, is profoundly absent inside. In effect, the reality of the site is its abstraction. The last photos are of a white room, a wall, and finally a map of the site—with colored pins that mark the houses under construction, the houses sold, etc.

Because “Park City” is in book form, we expect a narrative, about the place and event. But no point of view can hold (indeed, the site resists views), no address can engage or even locate the subject. “Park City”’s true narrative is the disappearance of landscape.

Landscape is crucial to our sense of being and to our sense of time as orderly succession. Space, scale, interval—these are disrupted in Park City, and nearly everywhere else. Where we are, and even who we are, becomes unsure. In these photos we see this: we are not only absent, but radically alien. And yet whose habitat is this but our own?

In a sense, landscape is now a cultural term. In the world of capital we have property, real estate, but not landscape—at least, not landscape as the space of the pure or divine. As a cultural genre, and as such a receptacle of values, landscape is now threatened.

“Park City” does not protest this, at least not overtly: Baltz just investigates the subject. But documentary photography is no more neutral than a subject is innocent (i.e. without connotation): it can let the subject represent or expose itself.

Hal Foster