Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

PST by the book: A Seismic Shift in photography

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Perhaps the least publicized element of Pacific Standard Time is the scholarship and catalogues published in conjunction with many of the PST exhibitions. Many of them contribute mightily to our understanding of post-war art in America. This is the third in a series of posts in which I’ll feature excerpts from catalogues published as part of Pacific Standard Time. Today: “Seismic Shift: Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal and California Landscape Photography, 1944-1984.”

The exhibition, at the California Museum of Photography at UC Riverside, and particularly its accompanying catalogue tell the story of how conceptual-minded photographers such as Baltz, Deal and Robert Adams were much more linked to the work and precedents of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston than is typically recognized. Catalogue essays by Colin Westerbeck, Susan Laxton and Jason Weems link the post-Vietnam generation to the pre-WWII generation not just through their work, but through friendships, academic associations and more. It’s an eye-opening story that I’ve never read before, one that’s hard to sum up with an excerpt. I strongly recommend the catalogue.

Instead, I’m offering up an excerpt from Westerbeck’s essay, one which expands the story of how the landmark New Topographics exhibition happened. Westerbeck’s telling gives Baltz a more prominent role in the development of the show than have previous histories. (In a related story, I might as well have just asked Westerbeck to do MAN this week: This is the second time I’ve excerpted him here.)

When [photographer Wynn] Bullock proved unresponsive to the new direction in his work, Baltz looked elsewhere for guidance. Finding it at the Claremont Graduate School, he began his Tract Houses series as his MA thesis and received encouragement from one of his professors, Hal Glicksman. When William Jenkins, an Assistant Curator from George Eastman House in Rochester (GEH), came through LA and looked Baltz up, because the two had met on a 1971 Baltz visit to GEH, Baltz introduced Jenkins to Glicksman, and the three of them brainstormed an idea Jenkins had for a show on photography of architecture. As Baltz and Jenkins discussed other young photographers they knew doing work similar to Baltz’s, the exhibition plans expanded to include everything in this specialty from the 19th century to Baltz and his contemporaries. [Image: Baltz, Tract House No. 16, 1971.]

One young photographer Baltz and Jenkins both thought of was Joe Deal, who had come to George Eastman House in 1971 to be a museum guard, his alternative service as a Conscientious Objector to the Vietnam War. Jenkins realized that Deal was underemployed, so when Baltz came to show his photographs Jenkins invited Deal to look at them too. “I think you’ll like them,” Jenkins told Deal, and so a friendship between Baltz and Deal developed that would grow over the next few years whenever Deal got to LA. The relationship flourished, Deal felt, because “We were both looking for something that we couldn’t put our fingers on in photographs that had to be kind of cool, distant, with a clear and hard view of the world—an unromantic and unfiltered way of looking through the lens.”

Discussions about the architecture exhibition lasted a couple of years. On his return from LA, Jenkins reported the conversation he’d had there to Deal, with whom he’d talked about the exhibition before his trip. When the subject came up a year or so later during a planning meeting at GEH, Deal had an insight that Jenkins and Baltz thought profound. The exhibition’s subject was not really architecture, Deal argued; it was landscape.38 In effect, the proposition was that the natural landscape as envisioned by earlier generations of photographers was now blocked from view by the tract housing, strip malls and industrial buildings in the foreground. These features were the landscape now. In the interim between his initial talks with Jenkins and his perceptive analysis of the concept for the exhibition, Deal’s own career in photography had advanced. This personal development was what led him to his insight.

His earlier photographs of period buildings around Rochester had gotten Jenkins thinking about architecture as a subject, but while Deal was on leave from GEH during the academic year 1973–74, earning an MA in photography at the University of New Mexico, his point of view as a photographer changed. Asked to make a photograph for a an architecture department poster, Deal happened upon a housing development that backed up against a hill on Albuquerque’s outskirts, so he climbed up to get a better view. “I grew up in the suburbs and I wanted to photograph what I knew. . . . I stood up on a hillside and looked down on Albuquerque, and it just startled me that here, spread before me, was what I’d been looking for. . . . I wanted to photograph the landscape, and the buildings became part of the landscape.” [Image: Deal, VIEWS/Albuquerque, 1974. Collection of SFMOMA.]

As if anticipating the fuss such photographs were to cause, Deal added, “I had no intention of turning my back on California landscape photography traditions.” Nonetheless, that was the effect of the new point of view he and Baltz were taking. Whereas Adams had taken the long view, stretching the focus from near foreground to remote background, Baltz and Deal were taking an immediate view. Though inspired by Weston, White had intensified the view Adams took to near the breaking point where background and foreground were telescoped until the distinction between them almost collapsed. Though it may not have been their intent, Baltz and Deal overthrew this entire historic progression by finding a point of view that was completely and unmistakably flat.

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  1. C H Paquette says:

    Fantastic! Thanks for this post… I just ordered the catalogue.

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