Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Park City and San Quentin Point

It might be more useful, if not necessarily more true, to think of photography as a narrow, deep area between the novel and film. - Lewis Baltz

One of the lamentable consequences of the current "photo-book boom," is the increasing scarcity and disappearance of valuable photo-books into the hands of all but the wealthiest collectors. While the boom has created a great new wealth of photo-books, many of the most important contemporary or historic books are all but impossible to get your hands on, much less purchase, and disappear quietly into private libraries. As the recent work of Martin Parr and Gerry Badger illuminates, the history of photography can be read in its long tradition of the book.

As a student of photography, when I couldn't buy many photo-books, I strained the resources of my college's Inter-Library Loan system to get as many obscure and out-of-print photo-books I could get my hands on. Deeply enamored of the "New Topographics" photographers, I devoured all their books - from John Gossage's The Pond to Robert Adam's What We Bought: The New World.


In addition to the works of Adams and Gossage, I fell in love with the books of Lewis Baltz. Idiosyncratic and coolly minimalist, Baltz brought an almost European sentiment to bear on the bleak post-industrial liminal landscapes of American. Park City, the future home of Sundance and celebrity McMansions, is not only revealed as a the backwater mining town it once was, but we witness its slow transformation into a utopic western suburb. Through images of bleak gravel piles to chaotic wiring, Baltz portrays the indifferent processes and materials called to service in the name of property development.


San Quentin Point, close to Baltz's home in California, was the focus of another seminal book. Located near the Golden Gate Bridge and close to the infamous prison, Baltz exposing the rough hems of the social landscape - "where communities begin to fray." As Andy Grundberg wrote in The New York Times,

With Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz was one of the most important, if hard to appreciate, photographers to emerge from ''New Topographics,'' the 1975 exhibition at George Eastman House in Rochester that defined a fresh attitude toward landscape photography. Rejecting sentimentality and pathos, he depicted what he called ''the new industrial parks'' with a puritanical dispassion. Here Mr. Baltz opens his work to feeling, seeing redemption through nature in the worst of manmade landscapes. The 58 black-and-white pictures document an area north of San Francisco that is famous for the prison named for it but that in these pictures appears to be nothing more than a garbage dump. Oleaginous puddles and dried mud flats frame ragged pieces of tar paper, burlap bags and tin cans. By the end of the sequence, however, the land reappears, sending up stalks of growth amid the disarray, and our sympathies are with it.

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