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Darkness at the Edge of Town: On Lewis Baltz


At Open Space, the blog of San Francisco MoMA, filmmaker and writer Steve Polta offers an intimate reflection on the work of photographer Lewis Baltz, who was known for his haunting pictures of homes and other human landscapes that were nonetheless devoid of humans. Polta explains how he first came across Baltz’s work and why it captivated him:

On discovering Baltz’s work circa 1992 — largely in the form of his mid-career monograph Rule Without Exception — I felt that I got it, or rather that I began to get it. I’m still feeling that way, still feeling like I’m getting it. It’s taking a while, but like some slow poison it continues to infiltrate and solidify. At first I felt he was simply saying, even with a whisper, “look.” A little while later I thought: He’s staring something down. Even later, I realized that there was something else at work here, something about holding a mirror up, reflecting the world back, showing the world back to the world, even if no one is there to get it. Bernard Lamarch-Vadel, in an essay included in Rule Without Exception, compares Baltz to Warhol in that both “confide to their images the exclusive task of presenting that which is already there.” I believe Baltz takes the “expressionlessness” of this gaze even further, treating his images (sometimes referred to as “forensic”) as evidence, if not as evidence of crimes then as evidence of violations: violations of decorum, violations of dignity, crimes against nature, errors, evolutionary wrong turns, and just bad ideas.

Baltz’s work opened a world for me that involved flatness, expressive non-expressivity, silence, repetition, organization and cataloging, inventory. The deadpan stare as a marker of disapproval made a lot more sense to me than the violent outbursts my punker friends were making — and for what it’s worth, it felt more honest. Looking at a few of these images, my thoughts wander and twist into the darkness at the edge of town…

Model Home, Shadow Mountain (1977): A slumping home, clearly on the edge of something, feeling somewhat warm and somewhat threatening, calming like a realist Thomas Kinkade. [4] Does a family shudder and turn on electric light against the exterior dark? Do they crawl under blankets and cower? Do they sigh and kiss goodnight? Do animals prowl their yard and kill their cats? Outside the world and the sky and the photographer hover and hesitate.

The home is like something warm and furnace-like. Can we crawl inside, place ourselves inside and therein be warmly roasted? A calm hill and a strangely glowing yet flat white sky loom over and radiate their cool presence. A cooling and hardening sky. The blankness, and something behind the blankness, something akin to the raging depressions that might be behind the walls.

Image: Lewis Baltz, Model Home, Shadow Mountain, from the Nevada portfolio, 1977