I read an interview with photographer Lewis Baltz on American Suburb X the other day. For those that aren’t familiar he’s one of the icons of the New Topographics movement of the 1970s. Along with his contemporaries like Stephen Shore and Robert Adams, Baltz has clearly inspired thousands of photographers around the globe (see the plethora of New Topographics groups on Flickr etc).
Baltz’ black and white plates of the industrial landscape collectively form a texture of urban realities and change as opposed to the singular, romanticised depictions of places traditionally produced by landscape photographers. Baltz rarely privileges any particular subject in his images and insists on viewing his work as sets arranged in grids. He doesn’t want the viewer to focus on any photograph as an individual piece but rather see the industrial landscape as a whole. Through the formal staging, both in his framing and print arrangement, you get the sense of the power and control these impenetrable walls have over us.
His work is significant to me because I’m also interested in these otherwise periphery, utilitarian spaces. But times have changed and photography is no longer the most effective way to analytically describe industrial parks, or anything static and public for that matter. We have free access to technologies now that can simply do it more easily (Google Earth for instance). Baltz mentions how photography has become a self-reflexive practice as it is superseded as the most accurate mode of objective description, much like how drawing and painting were replaced by photography for this purpose many moons ago. In art photography, our work is now more about questioning the medium’s relevance rather than trying to factually describe our subjects or their political circumstances. For me, photography is an experiential exercise; it serves as an excuse to simply go there and to feel, and to express our immediate experience through the pictures we take. I think photography still has an advantage over those more advanced tools of representation – human presence. At least for now, it’s difficult to feel and thus portray the aura of a space without being right in the middle of it… and I think Baltz shows this all very well. But I still ask what exactly presence means and how viewers might feel it from photographs beyond structural, motivated semiosis. I guess I’m dipping into phenomenology here and as I sink further into it hopefully more questions will arise and more interesting ideas will surface. Baltz has helped me along for sure. I’ll be writing more as I explore all this through my next set of photographs, so far titled ‘You Are Here (you are nothing)’. You can watch it grow over the coming months here.