Sunday, January 15, 2012

Baltz & Landscape Values

From a purely technical point of view, there is nothing that separates any photographic image from another on simple subject matter grounds. All photographic images are configurations of light and dark, which record relationships and gradations of depth, mass, and intensity. A picture of a waterfall over a rock precipice is "the same" as a photo of smoke billowing out of a factor smokestack. How we feel about the distribution of possible subjects represented in a photographic plane tells us something which is separate from the range of effects possible within the frame of the image, and we'd do well always to remember that when judging the potentials and ultimate meanings of photographs, from a purely aesthetic point of view. The sentiment we feel in viewing an image is a thing apart from the scientific facts which pertain to the process by which the image is produced. 1

The work of Lewis Baltz challenges our sense of the limits of artistic license, through the brutal dryness of his subject matter, and the irony created by referring to the work as "landscape photography." "Landscape photography" historically implied or referred to the documentation of nature, particularly "wild" nature. The landscape vision implied or openly advocated in the work of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, among others, presumed a value to unspoiled natural settings, specifically those which suggested a heroic or comforting sense. Nature was powerful, or soothing, or seductive, but most of all it was beautiful. This beauty valuation tended to project a universe of welcome, a nurturing of human presence, or of a primordial order larger than man's. It was a notion derived from British and Continental European romanticism, beginning in the 19th Century, and fostered in the 20th by environmental values. Indeed, Adams and Weston were crucially involved in the glorification of the American wilderness landscape, in the campaign to idolize and preserve our landscape heritage, against the advance of settlement, exploitation and over-use inherent in the expansion of population and capital. They thought of their images--indeed, nearly everyone else did too--as propaganda in the crusade to save areas of unspoiled land and seaside and mountain regions threatened in one way or another by man. Adams himself was an important figure in the Sierra Club, and lobbied openly for preservation, using his reputation as an artist-photographer to further his political aims for wilderness landscape values.

Despite the glorification of prettiest and most impressive places in North America by landscape photographers during the first half of the 20th Century, it was obvious, by the end of the 1960's, that the campaign to defend the American wilderness against exploitation and over-population--despite a few notable famous exceptions like the National Parks--was being lost. The American West was being turned into a spreading network of urban and suburban sprawl. Post-War prosperity, in particular, was clearly having deleterious effects both on the quality of the life lived in the cities, and in the new burgeoning suburbs. The American landscape was being used up, covered over, and transformed by man, in the interests of growth and consumption, under a sea of spreading waste. The wholesale domination of nature, pursued to create artificial environments ordered around mechanization (travel, production) and growth, proved to be a much stronger force than any preservationist influences in society. Highways, airports, train-systems, tract developments, large-scale power and extraction concerns--all the familiar aspects of the post-War American landscape--were rapidly shrinking the American outback, and those parts "preserved" against this trend, were suffering from emphatic idealization, becoming clich├ęs in the pantheon of vicarious destinations where people could visit and "experience" nature in a civilized setting.

The accuracy with which modern lenses were able to record detail within the breadth of the visual field was a technological advance, permitting pictures of the utmost clarity. This achievement was a technical fact, brought about by science and invention. Cameras are scientific instruments, just as microscopes and telescopes, and computers and vacuum cleaners and automobiles are. The power that sophisticated photographic processes had made possible insured that an accurate report of the visual landscape would be possible, for the first time in history. At first this clarity was not seen as desirable; soft focus image-making was originally regarded as the most "artistic" alternative. Then in the 1930's, art photographers "discovered" the power of sharp focus image making (the f64 Group, et al), and stunning pictures of all kinds of phenomena spread rapidly though the artistic community. In the 1940's, clear focus photographic images began to be accepted in the general art community (critically, and in the museum and gallery sphere) as a genuine expression of creativity and genius. During the Depression years, photography was used to document the social and landscape tragedy of the Dust Bowl.

It is natural perhaps to comprehend how the early art landscape photographers came to see "pretty" subject matter as the proper object of photographic endeavor. The citizen hobbyist, and amateur picture taker--they wanted to record things memorable to their lives, and beyond the family portraits, they wanted to capture the joy and inspiration of their recreations. Positive imagery of landscape was identified with vacations and trips to parks. As the park system grew in popularity, pictures of America's "wonderland" of beauty, tranquillity and dramatic backdrops reinforced the artistic piety of landscape as favored views of a preferred version of American life. This idealized concept of landscape was balanced against the uniformity and conformity of civilization, now seen as potentially demoralizing, or as threatening to a healthy existence. The transformation of landscape from a wild, dangerous, untamed "external" context, to a potentially harmonious system, balanced between use and preservation, was expressed in the landscape photography of the post-War period. Wild was good, wild was beautiful, wild was ethically necessary. Wild, scenic, picturesque imagery was the proper subject of landscape photography; its aim, the glorification of nature and the appreciation of the ecological interrelationship between man and his environment.

But the underlying truth which photography records doesn't stop at the overlook to a beautiful view. The truth is that most people in America live in neighborhoods and apartment buildings, in a landscape of concrete and roads and structures on the ground--the earth, the environment they see and work and play inside, is circumscribed, their landscape is covered over. The once riparian countryside of the past had been, or would soon be, covered over, obliterated to make way for mankind's expansions. Photographers who had grown up in a culture where landscape photography was building a record of places either lost to posterity, or increasingly at risk in the consumption of open space, realized that a larger truth about our environment was being ignored. Pretty pictures of the kind that Adams and Weston had made, though impressive and even heroic, did not address this larger tragedy of the degradation of the environment, at least not in the way that acknowledged the physical realities of the processes of destruction. The real challenge lay not in creating more images of pretty landscape, of forests and waterfalls and sand dunes and cloudy majestic peaks, but in recording the transformation of our wild heritage, at the cutting edge, where technological consumption was literally eating up space and covering it over with the products and settings of the machine age. 2

The process of artistic development isn't merely a repetition of past methods and approaches. Young photographers of the 1960's, 1970's and 1980's would probably have been content, had they been born a generation earlier, to treat landscape in the same way as their predecessors, shunning the harsh technological surfaces and uniformly ordered environments of the New West. But they were incapable of seeing the old pretty pictures in the same preferred manner. Pictures of Half Dome, or the Grand Tetons, or the dunes at Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley, were just as persuasive to them as they had been to earlier audiences--probably more so--but they no longer functioned within the same frame of meaning . They belonged to an earlier time, when Americans could look at such imagery with an unalloyed sense of awe, appreciation and gratitude; and, even later, as ecological shrines reminiscent of a past pre-civilized wonderland of wildness. Photography just a medium for creative idealizations of perfect places. And the new young landscape photographers of the 1970's, '80's and 90's no longer believed in the potential power of such imagery either to maintain man's better version of a balanced "partnership" with wild nature, or to persuade contemporary audiences that more pretty nature pictures were either necessary or desirable. And it had all been done before.

In the 1970's, Lewis Baltz, along with others including Robert Adams, the Bernds, Frank Gohlke, Stephen Shore, Joe Deal, Henry Wessel Jr., Ed Ruscha, broke free of the old tame landscape tradition and came to be associated as part of what would be called the New Topographics movement in landscape photography. Baltz's images, of this group, were probably the most uncompromisingly severe, and made a bold statement, a distinct impression of a new view of American landscape--dry, disinterested and cool. There was an intensity about it that challenged one's sensibility. It was clean and impersonal, and seemed to celebrate the autonomous, unself-conscious negligence of the new industrial spirit, claiming square footage as man's distinct prerogative in a limitless access. If it were to regarded as beautiful, it would require a complete redefinition of what landscape photography, as an art form, could mean.

You could say that much of the work of these New Topographics figures was not purely landscape work, since it devoted more attention to man's works on the land, than to "unspoiled" nature. Can architecture--even partially built, or "under construction"--be considered "landscape"? Is a poured concrete wall landscape? Is a lumber scaffolding landscape? Are overhead fluorescent lighting fixtures landscape? Obviously, the New Topographics artists weren't necessarily insisting that this kind of subject matter was landscape--or at least landscape in the earlier sense. What they seemed to be implying was that what our society had done to landscape was as pertinent as a study of what the landscape had been before it had been co-opted by artificial structures. When Baltz went to Colorado and photographed the construction-in-progress of tract developments, the implication was that this was a documentation of a tragedy.

But of course it became apparent that it was possible to make interesting pictures out of any kind of industrial "stuff"--including what might once have been considered the least inspiring and spiritually bereft phenomena imaginable. The pristine purity of artificial materials--metal, glass, sculpted concrete, insulation, siding, garage doors, the graded paving for a building footprint--could be interpreted both ways: As the material for a transparent appreciation of engineered spaces, or as the evidence of the devastating consequences of a dismissal of original nature. Both kinds of aesthetic values could co-exist within the frame of a single studied image, and Baltz's work enjoyed this ambiguity as much as any artist ever had.

Does the presence of man-made objects--the evidence of our effect on our environment--constitute as potentially meaningful a representation as their absence. Man's manipulation of his environment--of nature, after all--is the mark of civilization itself, for without our alterations upon the land, human life would be a bitter hardship. Ultimately, a balance between "development" and preservation cannot be negotiated by a purist approach alone.

American architectural history (along with city planning) is complex. A number of different urban and suburban residential and industrial design styles were employed throughout the American West in the post-War period, but for the most part, the way the built environment was created paid little respect to regional landscape factors where cities and towns grew. Much of it had a homogeneity of style in direct contradiction to any values derived from native materials, and without respect for the sustainable or available regional resource base. The great cities of the American West, particularly the Southwest, grew so fast that there wasn't any chance for the sort of variety which occurs when piecemeal, slower growth proceeds at a measured pace. This uniformity--the "instant" context of rapid, "uncontrolled" growth--brought about much harsh, ugly, dehumanizing landscape. You could pretend that this reality was uninspiring, and in direct contradiction to the natural landscape versions of the previous generation, but you couldn't deny that it was becoming more prevalent, and more virulent in its effects, and in its reach.

How might we regard the subject matter of the New Topographics, in light of the development of the technologies of the built environment, and taking into account the increasing sophistication of photographic technology as well? Baltz's images, sleekly produced monochrome gelatin silver prints, have a purist's intensity and accuracy of focus which is at one with the ruthless precision of their subjects--their straight lines, gritty continuous surfaces, unyielding material densities, and--most of all--their imposing alienating presence upon the land.

What Baltz is showing us is the raw edge of our own negligent disregard for the literal surroundings within which we live and breathe. Their flatness--a two-dimensional wall holding back all human variety and imaginative depth--perfectly captures the disembodied consciousness of our projected vanities and disturbing obliviousness, of what we insist on having, in taking from and dominating the context we occupy. Most of the time, we're barely aware of what's going on.

And yet, again, in purely aesthetic terms, the images are diverting. I began this essay by reminding myself that the breadth of possible subject matter should never be taken as a measure of the value of a two-dimension frame, or of the ultimate meaning of light-sensitive surfaces/impressions. Photography is about capturing variations of light, in patterns and varying intensities. But we're incapable of seeing anything in a completely a-moral way--and to try to do so is to submit to an arid anxiety.

Is it possible to tread the narrow edge of aesthetic regard in which an indignation for man's hopeless irresponsibility towards the earth, walks side by side with an idolatrous fascination with the synthetic contexts of advancing technology and civilized expansionism? If Baltz's images are seductive and elegant and eerily remote, they also resist deeper levels of apprehension. One thing that machine architecture suggests is a mastery over time, a repression of chance and fate. In our effort to push the untamed and unmanageable wildness of pre-historic or pre-civilized outer reality back and back, away from our immediate radius of control and knowing, we may fantasize an immortality, a sad sci-fi vision of a wholly reconfigured containment. Physicists tell us nowadays that there is no "here" and "there"--no separation between our sense of ourselves as distinct from the forces and vantages of the universe at large. Such entities are illusions. Baltz's testimonials to these illusions are compelling exactly because we sense the jeopardy they imply. As we continue to kill off the various forms of life on the planet, and quickly consume its stored energy and "raw material," fouling the air and water and ground beneath our feet, we set the stage for further elegies in the wake of our advance.

How pointless is a world in which our choices are narrowed to the pathways we alone have designed? How much control is advisable in a system of putative free will?

In the work of Robert Adams (below), we see this world from the inside out, and the recognition truly gives one pause.

Can we stop the merry-go-round once it's set into motion?

The beauty of the photography medium may transcend the ephemeral matter of its subjects, but we can feel the passage of time. What we have done can't be undone. The illusion of control is like a dream that continually unfolds. The imagination spawns false leads, dead ends and self-fulfilling artifacts. It's all in the choosing, and the recognition. It's always so easy to ignore what's right in front of you, but the camera tells another story.


1. From an aesthetic vantage, one would have to remember that Frederick Sommer, about whom I have written previously, explored the theoretical relationship between the reproductive processes of photographic image generation, and phenomena in nature. His interest bordered on the scientific, though his meditations weren't mathematical formulae, but speculations about relationships. He saw photographic process as a metaphor for perception itself: The eye is a camera, images are stored in the brain, etc.

2. I suppose it would be possible to make a case that, at least in aesthetic terms, we've gone beyond the "machine age" into the web-consciousness age. But our manipulation of the environment is still taking place on a grand scale, ramping up to ever higher levels of exploitation.

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