Seismic Shift at the California Museum of Photography


The California Museum of Photography in Riverside, CA, working in conjunction with the Pacific Standard Time: Art In L.A. 1945-1980, mounted Seismic Shift: Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal and California Landscape Photography, 1944-1984, curated by Colin WesterbeckThis title becomes important because it was the initial meeting of Lewis Baltz and Joe Deal at the University of California, Riverside,  that helped spring board the now historic show, ” New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape.”  

The New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, was a show curated by WIlliam Jenkins at the George Eastman House’s International Museum of Photography in January, 1975.  This exhibit was and has remained a crucial and key moment in the ethos of American landscape photography.   Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Stephen Shore, John Schott, Nicholas Nixon and Henry Wessel, Jr.  were the American photographers chosen to participate in the show, and Bernd and Hilla Becher were the non-American photographers invited to participate, who worked specifically in the documentation of found structures, silos and power-plants since the 1950’s.

Seismic Shift,  is a road map leading you from the beginnings of American Landscape Photography, honed by photographers like Ansel Adams and Minor White of Northern California then traveling through the works of Lewis Baltz and Joe Deal, John Divola, Sant Khalsa, Robert Adams, and over 100 other artists concerned with the ever changing and evolving landscape in Southern California.

This shift in american landscape photography could be traced to a number of factors. A point of reference is that all of the Americans were young photographers at the time of the “New Topographics,”  and all of them were involvement  in academia, as professors, instructors, or students.  The Bechers had already been teaching for a number of years at the Arts Academy in Dusseldorf, Germany.

During this period there was a shift from the hobbyist or self-taught photographers to ones whose observation of subject and meaning had moved away from the romanticized  idea of the landscape, and pointed a critical finger at what was happening to the American landscape; e.g. the loss of nature, the booming housing tracts and industrial parks.

The Where and When of American landscape photography created the stark difference in the grandeur of an Ansel Adams photograph and the sterile and clinical observation of a Lewis Baltz photograph.   Adams was reminding the viewer of what the landscape was, and Baltz was making the viewer aware of what the landscape was transforming into.  An example of this is Ansel Adams,’ Clouds above Golden Canyon, Death Valley, California, 1946,  a poetic and majestic image of a mountain with clouds bursting from its peak and exploding into the top half of the frame as they disappear like cigarette smoke into the atmosphere.  As you delve deeper into the rabbit hole you are confronted with Lewis Baltz,’ West Wall, R-ohm Corporation, 16931 Millikan, Irvine, 1974, From New Industrial Parks near Irvine, California ,1974, an image of a industrial building whose  door is opened to a lonely ladder posing for the camera. The image is both cold and clinical and leaves you with a sense of man’s unfinished business.

Seismic Shift: Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal and California Landscape Photography, 1944-1984,  at the CMP continues in the great tradition of exhibitions that will leave their mark on the art world. The exhibition highlights the shift from the romanticized and monolithic beauty of the American landscape to the critical and documentary-style depiction of human intervention and development in the American landscape, and foretells its demise.

For more information, to purchase the (wonderful) catalog, and to see images from Seismic Shift click here.

Jason Dawes

Editor’s Note:

Seismic Shift is a good reminder of how the changing concerns and styles in photography reflect those in our culture and ourselves. Digital photography and the companion digital lifestyle is the engine of our current shift but it goes much deeper than technology- people have changed and neuroscience tells us that our brains have changed accordingly. Over the past decade we now process information faster but with less depth, we find connections between otherwise unrelated things and draw conclusions on a more emotional level than before. As a culture, we’ve embraced a free-market individuality that has little concern for those who fall through the cracks even while each of us might be donating more time and money to causes we deem worthy. Relativism, the idea that everything has value and merit on approximate equal footing, has eroded our critical thinking, but we as a group admire rigid ideology and confrontation. Voyeurism is a national pastime and privacy is considered quaint.

We see these changes in photography, too. Entertainment is rewarded and aided by technology and even shocking images of brutality and cruelty are now used in marketing campaigns and fodder for amusement. Everything is for sale as never before and there is no shame in being a tool. Indeed, becoming a tool for celebrity and profit is a goal of the highest order. Our photographs show us this. Look at American Photo’s Pictures of the Year and any exhibition at the Annenberg Space for Photography as clear examples of how everything has become entertainment.

When I look at Joe Deal’s complex compositions and Robert Adams’ quiet observations, I am reminded of why I fell in love with photography, why I wanted to make photographs, and why I love teaching photography. Their images ask us to read them like poetry, respectfully requesting that we take the time to look and think and to walk away and continue thinking, then maybe making some pictures of our own. When I look at their photographs, I want to re examine my own work and see if it lives up to those standards, and sometimes I am happily surprised (though often I am not). Standing in the darkroom watching for two minutes as an image appears in a tray of liquid allows for a lot of thinking and looking, which I believe is a good thing. It is not fast and in my case, not profitable, and increasingly anachronistic, but the simple and profound pleasure of being consumed by Deal and Adams’ visions reminds me that it is time to go out and look at the world and make some pictures.