Sometimes, it’s good to go back to the classics to get reminded of how things can be done differently, and well. There is no shortage of contemporary photography of what we do with the land, to the land, much of it done pleasantly and occasionally decoratively. There’s nothing wrong with decorative (it helps selling prints). But of course there is the debate about whether or not we want to see ravaged landscapes photographed beautifully. We don’t (since it feels wrong, and we want the photographs to illustrate our opinions), and we do (since we love looking at beautiful landscapes). I’m tired of that debate, since however you look at it, it’s never about photography, but instead about what we expect to see: as I said, an illustration of our opinions. So it’s good to go back to the classics, and here I mean the more recent classics. (more)
Take Lewis Baltz’s Candlestick Point, originally released about twenty years ago and long out of print, but now thankfully re-issued. It’s a book filled with stark photography. These are photographs of a ravaged, ugly land. Even in the colour photographs (the book features both b/w and colour), there is very little, if any prettiness. Here are no toxic lakes running through the land in beautiful red.
It is instructive to see how the photographer prefers his photographs to be shown on the wall. I took a photograph of the installation at Pier 24: It’s a grid of smallish prints, with colour and b/w mixed (click on the picture on the side). Here are no oversized, expensively framed prints, aimed at wealthy collectors. Instead, you get what you could call conceptual rigour. It’s a different world, a different kind of thinking, a different era maybe.
For me, looking at what people wrote about the work when it first came out feels slightly weird, maybe because I grew up later. I get the idea of Land Art, for example. But what does that really tells us? Does it tell us anything other than critics trying to come to grips with this kind of photography? That struggle still seems unresolved, all these twenty years later.
There’s a lot to be said for reevaluating photography after some time has passed. Of course, we also need to realize that in the meantime, this land - our land - is being ravaged more and more, and the planet’s temperature is rising, our impotent hand-wringing notwithstanding. At the end of the day we need to realize that there’s only so much photography can do.
Candlestick Point, photographs by Lewis Baltz, essay by Wolfgang Scheppe, 128 pages, Steidl, 2011