Lewis Baltz established himself as a key contributor to redefining American Landscape photography when he participated with seven other photographers, including Robert Adams and Stephen Shore, in the influential exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Lansdcape, 1975, at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. The current exhibition, Lewis Baltz Portfolios at Griffin Art Projects, of Baltz’s work from a slightly later period in the 1970s and 1980s deals with similar subject matter and is drawn from the private collection of David Knaus. Baltz’s photographs, like the better-known work of Robert Adams, documents the effects of urban expansion into the previously pristine landscape of the American West. However, unlike Adam’s work that focuses primarily on suburban tract housing, Baltz turns his attention to the kind of waste that is added to the landscape at the margins of urban sprawl. The photographs are displayed in a grid format that appear to emphasize the monotony and repetition of a man-made environment. His minimalist aesthetic focuses on lifeless subject matter and pays a great deal attention to surface texture and contrast in the many close-ups of mounds of dirt and debris left behind from the urbanization process. These supplements to the landscape have a kinship to the additive method of sculpture and are in a curious way reminiscent of land art from the 1960s and 1970s. In fact a dotted line could be drawn between some of Baltz’s photographs and earth artist Robert Smithson’s 1967 photographic dérive “A tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey.” Instead of large format cameras that were favoured by traditional landscape photographers such as Ansel Adams, Smithson used a 35mm Kodak Instamatic due to its “generic” and “objective” replication of reality in a straightforward and unromantic way. Baltz similarily used a 35mm camera, but he was far more concerned with the quality and appearance of his prints than Smithson was. Though Baltz’s silver gelatin prints are small (approximately 8×10), they contain great depth of field and exceptional detail that draw you in to look closely. Baltz perfected the contrast in his prints by experimenting with some of the whitest papers available for silver gelatin printing. The exhibition is worthwhile seeing just to take in the quality of the workmanship that went into prints.
While the adverse effects of urbanization on the landscape in Baltz’s work appear timid in comparison to some recent documentation of what humans are doing to our environment by photographers such as Edward Burtynsky or Sebastiao Salgado, Baltz’s photographs still function in a provocative way. The focus on smaller details highlights on-going everyday toxicity that happens all around us versus mega disasters that are largely only accessible at a removed distance. The close attention to detail in the photographs calls out for us to do the same and continues to have a thoughtful impact. Lewis Baltz Portfolios continues at Griffin Art Projects until May 20.