first published in
Reconsidering The new Industrial Parks near Irvine, California by Lewis Baltz, 1974
Sternberg Press, New York/Berlin, 2011.
The fact that this project is necessarily closely connected with the history of the photographic book would seem to be self-evident: in 2009, Mario Pfeifer’s Reconsidering ‘The new Industrial Parks near Irvine, California’ by Lewis Baltz, 1974 took stock of a photographic series by the American conceptual artist. The series, which is a kind of meditation on the specific architecture of the new industrial parks near Irvine, California, was first published by Baltz as a glossy photographic book—an artistic format which consciously dispensed with textual framing of its images and all manner of specifics about the depicted locations. What initially moved Baltz to compile his photographic series and which principles and considerations may have underpinned his formal decision making, can be found in Günther Metkin’s art historical treatise entitled Spurensuche, first published in 1977. Baltz himself gave very few interviews about his work. But what does his work mean to artists from more recent generations? What is Baltz’s personal take on his early work? Which conclusions can be drawn about the interplay of space, image and text in the visual art of today?
One of the rare interviews given by Lewis Baltz to Mario Pfeifer, published here for the first time, highlights the difficulty in formulating the open questions generated by that particular photographic series, as well as its distributive processing “together with Baltz and beyond Baltz”. In this way, the struggle for an appropriate terminology and the meaning of socio-political contexts for the genesis of a cycle of images emerges as Pfeifer’s—and with him, a whole generation of art critical of the representational—urgent questioning of conceptual tradition. It is apparent that Baltz’s interest was geared far more towards abstract, formal painting and its political implications rather than a genuinely photographic engagement. In which context then should Baltz’s work be best discussed?
The reproduction of a short, untitled text from 1974 provides us with a clue as to the horizon of Baltz’s conceptual tradition. Alongside his work as an artist, Baltz has always published writings—albeit under a pseudonym—as an architecture critic and theorist. “Untitled Document” combines the artistic and discursive practice of conceptual art in an illuminating way, namely in the form of a list of typical characteristics—similar to the serial images themselves—and in connection with the erection of the utility buildings duly depicted (“typical”: locations, considerations in site selections, site planning, 10construction techniques, functions, names, environmental relations, and economic considerations). According to this, typicality would seem to be the principal structural feature of this image-orientated utilitarianism that Baltz, by means of his artistic understanding, exposes as the heart of the postmodern world of work, environment and indeed, lifeworld. But what is typical of Baltz’s own photographs? “Is not the lack of any commentary itself a commentary on this serialised, suburban conformity?” asks Joan Müller in her “Reflections on a film by Mario Pfeiffer”, entitled “Between Representation and Reality”. A certain typicality is reinvestigated here, namely the cultural technique of Realism mediating the relationship between reality and representation. With recourse to the historical avant garde, above all Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht, Müller would like the critical potential of Realism to be understood as a manifesting of that “social causality complex”. The altered conditions of photography as a mass medium on the one hand and, on the other, the (post) industrial reification of landscape on the paradigmatically postmodern US West Coast, could not remain with out consequences for the concept of Realism in 1970s photography. Müller’s essay retraces Baltz’s compositional decision making in The new Industrial Parks near Irvine, California; the structural analogy of functional architecture and formalised pictorial aesthetics becomes apparent in a specific formula for Realism “beyond the images”. According to Müller, Baltz’s critical abstraction of reality resides in the explicit reference to the causalities of post-industrial production, the photographic scanning of the facades duly revealing its decisive function as the very same.
Chris Balschak’s essay also counters the view that Baltz’s overly formalistic style lacks critical potential. According to his argument, Baltz’s photography is critical precisely because of its formalism, and this is apparent, above all, when one “reads” Baltz’s photographs in book form: on the pages of “The new Industrial Parks near Irvine, California”, the photographs place the formal raster of their subject matter at our disposal and thereby grant us the possibility of an immediate, even disinterested representation of landscape. Furthermore, he contends that the critical element resides predominantly in the emphasis of the very pictoriality of the suburban Californian landscape itself and its official and/or commercial image production (Irvine Company, NASA). The social context of making photographs—often neglected by the demands of classical Real11 ism, above all those of the documentary—particularly in the way Balschak reconstructs the latter by means of a historicisation of this work as the legacy of earlier, official photographs, serves as the basis for Pfeifer’s critical engagement with the techniques and methods of Lewis Baltz’s conceptual photography.
In so doing, the apparent difference engendered by Pfeifer’s critical, probing attitude towards conceptual practice, becomes increasingly difficult to situate. In this way, Baltz’s mimicry of post-industrial typologies does not contrast with Pfeifer’s interest in the typographical or the design principles and powers of artistic distribution. Indeed, it compliments it. If Baltz is evasive when asked in the interview: “What do you think about republishing this book, the difference in designs, which tend to reflect the time of reception”, Pfeifer, for his part, simply extends Baltz’s repertoire of compositional modifications and silent stagings himself. At the centre of the book, one of Baltz’s photographs is “reflected back” in programmatic fashion and—instead of the normal high gloss paper—integrated optically and haptically into the textual section. Two authorial approaches overlap at this point; Baltz’s dictum which states that “the work is not even site-specific, it’s really site-generated” is appropriated, utilised, made literal, developed further. The logic of type —“impression” in Greek— is removed from its classificatory function as the normal type and thus captured as a modern expression of the ideal type. Pfeifer’s cinematic experiment adds a secondary narrative to the repertoire of reproducibility; by means of the moving image, the main emphasis of the conceptual inventory of the specific problem is shifted towards a staged activation of the subject. The conditions for the production of the images themselves step forward for a moment out of the flatness of post-industrial surfaces in order to persuade us with new force as a visual document on the pages of this particular book.
What this contemporary artistic practice might mean for the present or even the future of the photographic book per se, now lies—if you will—in the investigative eye of the beholder.