New York

Lewis Baltz

Castelli Graphics

Lewis Baltz’s photographs belong to what might be called the elegiac sublime tradition in American photography. Like Robert Adams, Baltz depicts both the transcendent beauty of the landscape of the American West and the depredations that it has suffered from the encroachments of industrial society. In the work here, Baltz shows the wasteland of San Francisco’s Candlestick Point, a barren area where chaotic tangles of rubbish and the rusting shells of derelict cars pile up in the shadows of the local sports stadium. In many of these pictures, junk contends with the remnants of nature—a stand of scrubby trees is surrounded by a panorama of abandoned tires, a weed-covered mound of dirt confronts a pile of undifferentiated rubble.

Like Baltz’s earlier photographs of industrial parks and tract houses, this new work challenges familiar ideas of subject matter, rejecting centralized compositions which, in the way they frame specific and nameable objects, are related to the excluding distinctions of language. Instead, Baltz produces the inclusive compositions that are one of the hallmarks of Modernist photography, describing whole visual fields in which webs of formal and emotional significance are set up among recognizable, but often unnamed, objects. By rejecting centralized, theatrical framing, Baltz shifts the focus of the image away from the viewer and back to the depicted scene—back through the surface of the print, as it were—and helps give the image a heightened sense of authority, based on its quieter, less openly dramatic, rhetoric.

In these pictures Baltz does not take on the role of environmental activist, in the usual sense of the term; he’s not arguing for better zoning or improved recycling as the way to solve the depredations he describes. Rather, the pictures implicitly suggest the need for a basic shift of attitude toward the land. In many ways this proposed new attitude might be thought of as paralleling Baltz’s compositional approach—inclusive rather than exclusive, based on connections rather than disjunctions, depicting relationships within a field rather than privileged objects against and divorced from inconsequential backgrounds. In this sense it’s possible to speak of modernist ecology.

Working in marginal areas between city and country, areas that most people only glimpse from the windows of their passing cars, Baltz questions the categories of utility and significance imposed on the land. Like nuclear waste dumps, landfills, and sewage processing plants, the wastelands Baltz depicts are usually considered necessary but negligible. By regarding these sites with the romantic vision that has characterized landscape art since the Industrial Revolution, Baltz’s somber pictures ennoble them. By the same token, the images run the risk of lapsing into a weary disgust that, in a perverse transformation, could almost become acceptance—the limpid Western light, which in many ways has always been Baltz’s real subject, gilds equally junk and land, detritus and sky. But Baltz’s spare formal vocabulary keeps the pictures from sinking into sentimentality. In these images, he recovers the sense of wonder in the face of the physical world expressed a century ago by Timothy O’Sullivan and Carleton Watkins—even beneath the layers of physical debris and cultural preconceptions that obscure that world from our vision.

Charles Hagen