I have a thing for 20th century American photographers, particularly the ones who still develop in black and white after the 1950s.
It all started when I took the course Seeing Through Photographs from the MoMa. I didn’t think it was possible to fall in love with photographs but it happened once I met Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Gary Winogrand, Walker Evans and Cindy Sherman. Seeing Through Photographs took me on a journey through the photographic archives of the Museum of Modern Art, using them as sources to lay out a history of photography and its uses, from the daguerreotype to documentary photography, portraiture and the use of photography in contemporary culture. I was immersed in a monochrome world from which I emerged a different ( and considerably more knowledgeable) photography enthusiast.
Fundación Mapfre in Madrid is a small gallery dedicated solely to contemporary photography. They curate four annual exhibitions of renowned contemporary photographers, starting in 2008 with Walker Evans. Since then, they have curated exhibitions of plenty but not exclusively American photographers such as Lewis Hine, Cartier-Bresson, Paul Strand, Bruce Davidson, Eugene Atget, Julia Margaret Cameron and Josef Koudelka. Their current exhibition, which opened in Feburary and runs until June 2017, is of the American photographer Lewis Baltz. It is the first exhibition of his work in Spain and houses around 400 exhibits, depicting his entire range of work, from his first photographic series in black and white taken in the 1960s and 1970s to the works in colour of later years.
Lewis Baltz is known for photographing the American landscapes through a new vision, shying away from the country´s natural beauty he chose to photograph urban landscapes, showing the land as occupied territories and man-made images. He was part of the exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Lanscape in 1975, curated by William Jenkings at the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, alongside eight other photographers. The artists were briefed and assigned to act as topographers, avoiding all intents of romanticism or artistic beauty in pursuit of a new kind of objectivity. The photographers moved away from the traditional depictions of landscape as unmarked, pristine beauty to capture industrial scenes, suburban growth and urban desolation. Not the idealized image of nature but the way man has come to alter it.
“The pictures were stripped of any artistic frills and reduced to an essentially topographic state, conveying substancial amounts of visual information but eschewing entirely the aspects of beauty, emotion and opinion. […] rigorous purity, deadpan humor and a casual disregard for the importance of the images“
WILLIAM JENKINGS. Exhinition Catalogue. 1975
Baltz viewed the landscape as an urbanized and populated space, deciding to record it as such. He investigated and photographed the rise of technology and industrialization as means of human emancipation. Despite the words of William Jenkings, Baltz´s work focused precisely on the search for beauty in the seemingly cold, lifeless and intrusive human architecture. Offices, parking lots and factories became stages for his photographs as well as unanimated objects found on the always deserted streets. Photography was the mechanism Baltz used as a means of expression, his own personal tool for research and knowledge. Due to his training in Fine Arts ( he graduated from San Francisco Art Institute with a BFA and went on to do an MA in Fine Arts from Claremont Graduate School) he conceptualized the content of his photographs, always taking context into consideration.
Through his monochrome tones, Baltz gives us a structured, geometric view of the American landscape, full of sharp, straight angles, rough and contrasting textures of decimated earth, concrete and shiny metal, all within the urban landscape full of reflecting windows and typographic logos. I find his photographs clinical, almost desensitised due to the lack of human presence but there is also a quiet and minimalist beauty in them, a distilled essence made through the elimination of all the irrelevant colourful noise.
P.D You can visit the exhibition until 4th of June 2017 at Fundación MAPFRE Barbara de Braganza.
Sources: Lewis Baltz. Fundación MAPFRE and Absence of Style: Lewis Baltz and the New Topographics at Socks.