first published in
Reconsidering The new Industrial Parks near Irvine, California by Lewis Baltz, 1974
Sternberg Press, New York/Berlin, 2011.
An E-Mail Conversation
Lewis Baltz (Paris, Venice) and
Mario Pfeifer (Los Angeles), 2009
Mario Pfeifer — How did your interest in the project begin? And when did you decide to produce a book about it, which appeared in 1974?
Lewis Baltz — When I returned to Southern California in 1969, I had a project to record the dominant forms of residential architecture and industrial buildings. The residential work The Tract Houses was finished in 1971. The new Industrial Parks near Irvine, California was completed in 1974. My gallery, Castelli Graphics, was willing to support the publication of a book, so given my opinion that books were the best venue for photographs, I did it.
MP — What was the economic and political situation in Los Angeles County at the time you were working as an artist in Irvine and the surrounding area? And how do you view this project today? Would you revisit the locations, or do they only exist for you in the archive you created?
LB — That’s a question that calls for a very, very long answer, and one in which I think I could add little to the scholarship of Carey McWilliams, Peter Reyner Banham, and, later, Mike Davis. The conditions in Orange County, where I had been born and was then working, were of pure, unbridled land speculation. In my then short lifetime, the county had been transformed from a sparsely populated archipelago of small cites with an agricultural economy to the biggest real estate development in California. It had acquired a university, four million people, and one of its own had been elected President. It was hailed by its developers as the fulfillment of the American Dream. As you can clearly see from the photographs I made, I thought it was a nightmare.
MP — You once described your practice as site-generic. Could you explain what you mean by that? And how does your architectural photography go about examining it? Do you also think about your work in terms of “representation”?
LB — I think the term was “site-generated,” but it was only a minor point — something to indicate that my engagement was with specific circumstances, as I believed that photography worked from the specific to the general, rather than the other way around.
MP — Were you interested in what actually happened in these buildings while you were photographing them?
LB — Yes, I was, in large part because the industrial buildings were done with a kind of “stealth” design — an aesthetic of concealment that was done intentionally to confuse the
onlooker as to the activities going on within.
MP — Different versions of The new Industrial Parks near Irvine, California, from Castelli’s 1974 edition to the latest Steidl edition, have been published. What do you think about republishing this book—the difference in designs, which tend to reflect the respective era of publication? Who made the decisions about the book’s design, both past and present?
LB — The new Industrial Parks near Irvine, California had been out of print for over twenty years when it was reissued by RAM and Steidl in the hope that during those twenty years an audience might have developed for this work. The differences between the 1974, 2001, and 2005 editions are quite small: mostly jacket design. The actual designer
in 1974 was Thomas Barrow; for the later editions it was Tracy Schiffmann. In both cases I approved the design.
MP — I am very curious to talk with you and I hope my questions are more or less appropriate to you. I guess two or three more questions might come up once we have talked but I don’t expect the conversation to be longer than twenty minutes, if this makes it easier for you.
LB — Or we can e-mail, which is more precise, especially in view of the telephone service I presently have here in Venice.
MP — Do you know if I can find a copy of the 1974 edition somewhere in Los Angeles? The Luisotti Gallery didn’t have one.
LB — Good question. I don’t have one. Have you tried UCLA or LACMA?
MP — It is interesting that you credit urban scholars in your statement. Did the writings of Banham, McWilliams, or Davis influence your attitude, practice, and knowledge beforehand, in parallel, or afterwards, whilst working in Orange County?
LB — I had read Reyner Banham about the time I was working on the Irvine project, but not the others. I encountered Mike Davis first in City of Quartz, at Allan Sekula’s suggestion, around 1992. As I was reading it (in New York), a friend — another ex-Californian — put me on to Southern California: An Island on the Land, by Carey McWilliams.
MP — Did you revisit these locations again in 2009 or do they only exist for you in the work, the archive you created? Are you still interested in Orange County and what happens nowadays in these structures? Did you ever talk to the architects, owners, or users of these structures?
LB — Three questions in one. The answers are: no, no, and yes. At the time I was working on the Irvine project, I did meet with the planning office. Most of them had been trained at MIT and believed that they were some kind of functionalist utopia.
MP — You are considered, historically, to be a key protagonist of the New Topographics — do you know when this term was coined and who defined works such as The new Industrial Parks near Irvine, California or Candlestick Point in this way?
LB — William Jenkins, when he was searching for a blanket term that could contain the works in his exhibition. Unless he
got it from someone else. Maybe. If you’re really curious about this you should ask Joe Deal. He was working there with Jenkins, doing his alternative service, actually, and contributed a number of ideas that were incorporated into the final exhibition.
MP — Did you consider the term “representation” in your practice during the 1970s? Would you also refer to terms like “documentary photography,” “architecture photography,” or “landscape photography”?
LB — No. “Representation” (as in “crisis of…”) became a critical cliché in the late seventies and early eighties. As for the last three terms, I’m not very comfortable with any of them.
MP — How did painting — part of your visual studies course at the San Francisco Art Institute — inform your approach to photography and the way you specifically utilized the photographic material? Can you say something about technical aspects considering both camera and print work?
LB — Though there were certain painters (early Johns, very early Stella, very early Marden, Ryman, Richter, and, much closer to home, John McLaughlin, whom I admired immensely), I personally detested the act of painting (as well as drawing) and spent much of my undergraduate life at SFAI devising strategies to avoid both.
As for photographic technique, I wished my work to be both as high res and as impersonal-seeming as possible — that is, mechanical. The problem I had (always) was that I was never as much interested in technique as most “photographers” were, so there were contradictions to be negotiated in the facture of the work. Successfully, I hope.
MP — Can you further explain how it was to work with graphic designers over the years, with typography and cover design, as well as with the use of two languages within the book? Was there a reason to change the jacket design, the order of credits, etc.? There was never an introductory note, critical text, or acknowledgements included — is there a reason for the blank pages at the front and back of the book? Will the planned 2011 version be updated again? And will you use the same offset plates to reproduce the photographs, or are have they been reproduced for each version?
LB — Many questions, many answers, so, in order: a friend at the time, Thomas Barrow, designed NIPNIC under my supervision. It is fairly simple: each two-page spread is the same, repeated fifty-one times. Helvetica was the most generic — yet modern — kind of typeface around at that time. It is very good for display type though for body type it is rather unreadable; but, with the exception of the captions, there was no body type (text), so no problem. The jacket design. When I reissued the book in 2001, I didn’t want an image on the jacket — in fact no jacket at all, only a cardboard slipcase. My American publisher, who has been very generous with this project, asked that I please, please have a dust jacket as it was impossible to market a book in the US without one. I said that in that case, “OK,” to do whatever she wanted so long as there was no image. That’s how we ended up with my name 7.5 cm high. The 2010 reissue will be boxed with no dust jacket.
MP — As I am a German citizen currently conducting research in California, I wonder what your relationship is to Germany, as I know you have one due to your involvement with Michael Schmidt in Berlin. Can you give a sense of how your work was received in Germany and how you came to collaborate with Steidl?
LB — Before I came to Germany and met Michael Schmidt, I was aware that there had been work going on in Germany that was in advance of nearly everything that was happening in the US, I became curious about Germany, and its contemporary culture, though I wasn’t able to visit until 1980. During the early eighties I regarded Michael as one of my two or three closest friends and had an enormous respect for his intelligence and self-discipline. Even though we fell out (over aesthetic differences), I retain my respect for him. I met Gerhard Steidl in 1993 when I arrived in Göttingen to do press for my Winterthur book Regel Ohne Ausnahme. During those extremely stressed two weeks, I came to see that Steidl was not only the best printer of photographic images on Earth, but an extraordinary human being, a Beuys protégé, a founder of the Green Party, one of the few men of the left that I had met who had a plausible vision of the future. Gerhard Steidl is far more interesting than all but a very tiny handful of the authors he publishes. I feel fortunate to have met him and extremely privileged to work with him. Last year, the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne made an exhibition of his work as a photographic publisher; it’s a shame that they weren’t able to include a fuller picture of him and his activities than only that.
MP — I went to Orange County again, and revisited the Santa Ana area. I also talked to an owner of a metal shop on Boyd Street and showed him the NIPNIC book I own. It was very interesting to listen to him. He had actually worked in several buildings depicted in NIPNIC, as indeed had his father, and consequently knew pretty much about the governmental businesses and military manufacturing that took place in the seventies and eighties. The most striking aspect, but maybe also a bit sad, was the fact that he pointed out that the photograph of his building (1611 S BoydStreet, Santa Ana, California) is a somewhat incorrect representation of the structure. The gas meters, light, and door handle appear on the wrong side, with the effect that we see a mirror image in the print. Are you aware of that or is this an intentional representation?
LB — The brief and correct answer to your question is: “damned if I remember!” I seldom did that, however. Very seldom, because I had been told, and believed, that some
resolution was lost when you flipped the negative. In retrospect, I don’t know if this is true, but I believed so at the time. Like many other things. However, if your contact built the building, and he thinks it was the reverse, I will gladly defer to the evidence. But I wishI could remember why I did that …