Print Analysis: South Wall, Semicoa, 333 McCormick, Costa Mesa
Permeating with irony, social critique, and unusual beauty, Lewis Baltz’s photographs illustrate a contemporary form of artistic thinking and advancements in the photographic medium. Curated by William Jenkins at the International Museum of Photography, the 1975 exhibition entitled New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape displayed documents of the urbanization and transformation of the American landscape. This groundbreaking exhibition included the deadpan and highly geometric photographs by Lewis Baltz, in addition to the work of nine other artists. With a clear emphasis on the combination of nature and culture, these images redefined landscape photography through the seemingly objective illustration of the new development in the West. Despite their impartial appearance, Lewis Baltz’s photographs function as an ironic critique of the concept of the American dream and commentary on the country’s expansive urbanization.
Preceding the New Topographics, documentary photographers, such as Walker Evans and Dorthea Lange, and modernist photographers, particularly the artists of Group f/64, dominated the medium. These artists almost exclusively employed an objective view of their subjects, documenting a situation or recording beauty rather than conveying a specific, conceptual message. Group f/64, consisting of photographers such as Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Imogen Cunningham, pioneered landscape photography. These artists attempted to capture the pure, natural world, while maintaining formal composition and a strict set of aesthetic guidelines. Through the elimination of a human interaction with nature, they created the appearance of sublime, natural perfection and formed idealized depictions of the American landscape. But, as the social, political, and economic environments of the United States began to transform, so did the physical landscape, necessitating a new form of photographic illustration. By photographing banal subject matter with an unemotional viewpoint, Baltz denunciated “the vision of a previous generation of landscape photographers and [created] a new discourse on what photography should be and what the American landscape had become” (Lahs-Gonzales, 34).
South Wall, Semicoa, 333 McCormick, Costa Mesa undoubtedly embodies this condemnation of both idealized landscape photography and America’s careless urbanization. With its highly structured, geometric composition, deadpan framing, and linear emphasis, Lewis Baltz’s photograph appears uncomfortably sterile, like a scientific documentation of urban development. Reinforcing the image’s clinical, documentary quality, the print contains a substantial amount of detail. By using a medium format camera with a subject in close proximity to the photographer, Baltz was able to form sharply defined lines and capture the material form of the building with exceptional clarity. This high-resolution, most evident in the linear pattern of the dark, concrete band and the newly painted parking strips, conveys the unnatural quality of the landscape, in addition to reinforcing the fact that the building was recently constructed. Despite the clinical documentation and the visual clarity, the viewer is left disoriented in a nondescript environment. Void of any physical landmarks or explanatory text, it is impossible to understand the location of Baltz’s landscape. Furthermore, this disorientation is generated by the photograph’s temporal ambiguity, as seen in the nondescript sky and unusual shadows. Through a long exposure at night with artificial lighting, he is able to produce the tonal uniformity in the sky and perfectly horizontal shadows, giving the scene its uncomfortable sterility and disorientation. Ironically contrasting this ambiguity, Baltz titled his work South Wall, Semicoa, 333 McCormick, Costa Mesa, providing the viewer with the exact location of the image. Reinforcing his condemnatory intentions, the inclusion of this information does not remove the photograph’s vague and unsettling qualities, but instead conveys the idea that this scene could occur anywhere. In fact, he asserts that this scene occurs ubiquitously across the newly developed West. By illustrating this trend, Baltz criticizes the proliferation of uninspired suburban construction, further developing his denunciation of Western urbanization.
Forming his critique on the expansive urbanization of the West, Lewis Baltz employs formal elements in his photograph to express the careless modification of the landscape and to provide ironic commentary on consumerist growth. The two trees, perhaps the most important aspect of the image, take on a lead role in conveying the photographer’s critical message. In distinct contrast to the light grey, rigid, and uniform south wall, the dark, sensuous trees take on a purely organic form, becoming the antithesis to the constructed façade. Through a long exposure, Baltz is able to capture the movement of the foliage, which increases the contrast between the static, artificial building and the dynamic, natural world. Additionally, this distinction provides an optimistic glimpse at what the landscape could be. But, this idealized moment is destroyed once the viewer comprehends the placement and function of the trees: insignificant adornments contained by dark asphalt. The manipulation, confinement, and destruction of nature, as argued by Baltz, are directly linked to “the decay and architectural decline of a dystopian world that stands for regression rather than progress” (Figner, 33-35). Ironically, this regression is embodied by the physical expansion seen in Western urbanization, specifically illustrated by the asphalt around the trees, and the rampant consumerism of a seemingly prosperous country. Through this, Baltz sarcastically references the idea of the American Dream and the flourishing frontier of the West. With promises of success, possibility, and happiness, Lewis Baltz reveals that, in fact, this glorified world is nothing but a banal series of homogenous alterations to the natural landscape. South Wall, Semicoa, 333 McCormick, Costa Mesa conveys the disturbing, entropic truth that our nation’s progress and physical growth equates to permanent destruction.
While Lewis Baltz’s photography clearly discusses the importance of preserving nature, his intentions were more directed towards critiquing America’s consumerist culture. Like many of his contemporaries, including artists in the realm of pop and post-modernism, Baltz aimed to paint a grotesque and condemnatory picture of consumerism. Additionally, his work employs a minimalist aesthetic, resulting in the accentuated materiality of his landscapes. With a widespread impact on contemporary art, Lewis Baltz has played a central role in shaping the photographic style of artists like Andreas Gursky and Candida Höfer, as well as completely redefining the concept of landscape photography.
Lewis Baltz, South Wall, Semicoa, 333 McCormick, Costa Mesa, 1974, gelatin silver print