… Baltz’s photographs are neither mirrors nor windows but frames — the analysis they structure is what gives the view.
This is from the essay ‘Photography’s Objecthood’ by Matthew S. Witkovsky found in the Prototypes volume of the multi-volume Lewis Baltz (2010
… we first need to wrest Baltz’s early works from the orbit of fine photography in which they continue to be discussed almost exclusively. A review of two key early exhibitions shows how misguided it can be to class works of art based on their medium, and suggests in particular the difficulties Baltz faced as he struggled with the dominance of documentary photography during the 1960s and 1970s.
… [the show’s curator William] Jenkins’ vision of the documentary seems fixedly centered on democratic empiricism. The photographers in “New Topographics” were not judgmental, in Jenkins’ view, nor were they attempt[ing] to validate one category of pictures to the exclusion of others” — in other words, they were not elitist. … Availability, neutrality, a studied absence of affect marked Jenkins’ claims for these photographers.
[line break added] He picked “topographics,” it turns out, as a synonym for “document,” stressing not topos but descriptive fidelity in defining his use of the term: ” ‘The detailed and accurate description of a particular place … ‘ The important word is description for although photography is thought to do many things to and for its subjects, what it does first and best is describe them.”
Baltz is quoted at length in the short catalog essay, and it is ironic, for his comments do not support Jenkins’ exposition.
… Abstraction and, certainly, art, are Baltz’s intention, not just in the Prototypes but also Tract Houses and New Industrial Parks, the series featured in “New Topographics.” There is thus no way that Baltz could agree with Jenkins that “Ruscha’s pictures of gasoline stations are primarily about a set of aesthetic issues,” (Jenkins admires Schott’s description of Ruscha as making “statements about art through the world”) while “true” photographers are speaking directly about the world: “This [non-judgmental] viewpoint, which extends throughout the exhibition, is anthropological rather than critical, scientific rather than artistic.” The distinction between criticism and research, aesthetics and information, is specious, especially when one is on the terrain of the documentary.
… Baltz’s photographs are neither mirrors nor windows but frames — the analysis they structure is what gives the view. Indeed, the “work” as such meant and included its presentation in books or exhibitions, with all the literal and discursive framing this entailed.
None of this was understandable in the terms of ordinary photographic criticism in the 1970s, although it could certainly be grasped in relation to advanced art. Consider the example of Richard Serra, who like Baltz was preoccupied with landscape on the one hand and the ordering of public space on the other — and who, in Baltz’s memory, was the first Castelli artist to praise his work.
… Unlike the Bechers, Baltz is not inventorying forms or types of structures; there is not even a pretense of system in his Prototypes or subsequent series. His images may be “deadpan,” but his prints are the opposite of lackluster, the common characteristic of Ruscha’s photobooks, the photoemulsion canvases of Baldessari, or photographic projects by the young Douglas Huebler, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Christian Boltanski, and others.
[line break added] (As an obvious point of difference, Baltz slavishly printed his own photographs, while the others pointedly took theirs to the one-hour store — and mixed anonymous photographs with their own, an even more radical gesture.) The rigor, the deoxygenated stillness, the magnetic surfaces of the Prototypes are qualities that utterly distance them from most vernacular photographic forms.
There is one class of vernacular photography that Baltz’s photographs do resemble, however: corporate studio work. Although their rich printing somewhat obscures this comparison, the even lighting, isolation and decontextualization of the subjects, and surface allure are all traits that bring the Prototypes close to commercial presentation pieces, especially sales images for trade fairs or company brochures.
… The objecthood of Baltz’s prints undoes their status as views of any sort onto reality — alternative, true, ironic, or otherwise.