Lewis Baltz and David Campany in Conversation
Lewis Baltz, STEIDL, 2017
This survey book of the work of Lewis Baltz contains a long conversation recorded shortly before his death. It covers whole of the Baltz’s working life, from his earliest ‘topographic’ projects in California in the 1960s, 70s and 80s to the very different works he made in Europe.
Lewis Baltz in Conversation with David Campany
Beginning in the late 1960s, the late Lewis Baltz (1945–2014) occupied a singular but complex position within art, architecture and photography. While his work always showed a modernist commitment to the camera’s powers of visual description, what interested Baltz was the growing tension between the seeable and the knowable. What does it mean when the surface of the world obscures meaning? How do we relate to an architecture that ceases to communicate? Baltz’s serial photographic works, videos and site-specific installations dramatise this rupture in differing ways.
Like many artists emerging from conceptualism, Baltz maintained an equal commitment to the page and the wall. Each new publication was met with great anticipation and his work has been central to many important exhibitions. He also wrote about images with rare clarity. In art historical terms, Baltz’s interest in the spread of modular industrial forms can be seen in light of minimalist sculpture; his exploration of marginal or rejected spaces mirrored that of land art; his attraction to American vernacular forms was shared by Pop; his concern with the corporate forces that shape land and real estate chimed with the move in documentary photography from the recording of events to the recording of traces; and, more recently, his bringing together of different genres of imagery had much in common with postmodern montage, collage and appropriation.
In 1989 Baltz left California for France, just as his concerns shifted from images of the landscape to the landscape of images: the rootless post-industrial space of surveillance, spectacle and anomie. We met in Paris, while ‘Common Objects’, an exhibition I co-curated at Le Bal, was on display. We discussed his changes and continuities over five decades.
DC: Lewis, in the spirit of chronology, or at least biography, let’s begin with your first start in photography, which comes at a very early age.
LB: Yeah, I was 11 when I was given my first 35mm focusing camera.
DC: And you took it seriously straightaway?
LB: Well, within a year I’d abandoned 35mm and was working with a Rolleiflex. I also had my own darkroom, printing all my own work. I loved it. I was absolutely fascinated by it.
DC: What were your pictures like then?
LB: Oh Christ, that’s the bit I’d rather not speak about. They were stupid. Just pretentious landscape shots.
DC: But what was so attractive about photography?
LB: It seemed almost like magic to me that somehow you could make a replica. And you could represent the world, or a large piece of the world, without ever having to mess around with drawing and all that sloppy handmade stuff. This is the way it remained for a long time, I guess until the mid-1970s, when video began to come into its own. Nevertheless, photography, which really isn’t all that simple, has always been for me the most direct and most automatic and most uninflected way of making a visual notation of something.
DC: What did you want to notate?
LB: I wasn’t sure. I was just a kid. But I knew what I was looking at, even if it was very hard then, in the late 1950s, to find publications about photography. There were just so few, I guess because none of them ever sold well enough to escape being on Marlboro book lists, which was where you could buy any unsold book for a dollar. Although of course this made them available. I used to be able to boast that I bought every photography book published – but that was only because there were just four or five produced every year, right through most of the 1960s. Even with all the usual kind of amateurism and popular photography nonsense around at the time, it was also clear to me then that there were in effect two trends or two positions within photography: one, of course, was Robert Frank and The Americans, and the other was Edward Weston. Being afraid of crowds and also being a bit of a romantic, the Weston myth appealed to me much more than the Frank. Also, I could think of nothing better than living on one of those beautiful pieces of land in California or those southwestern states and going out each day and doing your work, your artistic work, and then coming home to find a beautiful woman waiting for you. In a sense it was a dream life. Of course, it appeared as a dream because it was mostly a romantic fiction. But Weston was also a dedicated man, a man on a mission – and if you read his notebooks, he was also something of a hard-headed narcissist, constantly writing, ‘Today I exchanged correspondences with Kandinsky, who told me for the first time “I regard photography as art”.’ The notebooks are full of lines like this. So he was an egoist, and maybe also a bit of a bullshitter. Or both. Anyway, to answer your question, at 12 I had no idea what I wanted to notate, but I wanted to be Edward Weston. The reality is that I fell far short, but I still kept up that idea until about the age of 19 or 20.
DC: And was it therefore because of Weston that you used to travel from your home in Newport Beach, California up the coast to Carmel?
LB: It was partly because of Weston, but there were also all those surviving members of the Pacific Slope photographic school – Wynn Bullock, who was very generous with his time; William Current, who had been my mentor when I was just a kid; Brett Weston, who was always driving around in a Corvette with the top down and sunglasses on and a beautiful blonde by his side; and even Ansel Adams, who was a real businessman and a total charlatan. In many ways, it was a crazy thing for somebody my age to be doing – going up to the pine forests of Point Lobos every weekend to take pictures – and at some point reality crashed in and I saw the absurdity of it all; that this was all part of an older world that I couldn’t have because it was gone. You couldn’t do Edward Weston for the very simple reason that Edward Weston had done Edward Weston.
DC: But outside of Point Lobos your day-to-day reality would presumably have been very different.
LB: Oh, for sure. Most of the world that I lived in for the other five-and-a-half days of the week was much more ordinary but also somehow more mysterious, almost obscene. I mean, no one seemed to be looking at the weed lots and highway verges and gasoline stations and six-dollar motels and what have you. And this was in spite of the fact that these things were the main presence in most people’s existence. Was this in any way redeemable as an experience? I mean, if we couldn’t make sense of it politically or economically could we at least make aesthetic sense of it? The answer’s probably no. But that’s when it all started for me, it’s when I began taking the pictures that led to the hyper banal Prototypes series which are still on display at Le Bal today.
DC: And did you carry this interest into your more formal studies? Did you go to art school?
LB: Well, sort of. Just like everybody else at the time my primary objective in continuing with my education was to avoid military service. So I went to a community college in Monterrey. I didn’t tell the draft board I was studying art because that was probably the worst way to get a deferment. So I called myself a business major, even if I never took a single business course. And then again to avoid Vietnam, I went on to the San Francisco Art Institute from 1967 to 1969. At that point in San Francisco there was the confluence of two things – at the art institute there was the continued crumbling of the school from its glory days in the 1950s with Douglas MacAgy, and of course it was also the Summer of Love. This meant we never really had any classes. You’d just go to school to hang out. I remember doing all my printing at my apartment.
DC: You weren’t a hippy?
LB: No, not really, but I could play the game well enough to have hippy girlfriends. That was about the extent of it. Actually, most of the people around me then hated my work, partly I guess because I was the only guy doing any work.
DC: And that was the beginnings of the Prototypes, which as you mentioned, went on for some time. But didn’t they have a different title to start with?
LB: Initially I called them Protoinvestigations, which was a title I stole from one of the books Joseph Kosuth displayed at his first show at the Kunsthalle in Bern, but then the title evolved somehow into Prototypes.
DC: But I love the title because it raises the very interesting question of whether a photograph can be a prototype.
LB: It was always my ambition, which I admit I didn’t invent, to do a piece that would contain multiple images, and be somewhat cinematic in nature, and yet still be a single work. I was just looking for a subject that would support that kind of continued effort. This was actually no easy task. And the early stuff I was doing at the institute was, I guess, just one stop along the way.
DC: But even though you talk about the images as a singular work, the whole series is very varied.
LB: I think that’s true. But perhaps that simply shows the effect of multiple influences. I mean, this was a time when Antonioni first really entered my sphere of vision. I used to go over to Berkeley to watch films in the archive, and it was there that I saw Red Desert. I remember being completely transfixed by it. For a number of reasons, I somehow couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. One was the sheer physical beauty of the film, but it also had to do with the colour. Red Desert was the first film I ever saw in colour that I liked.
DC: It’s also the first film in colour that Antonioni liked.
LB: Yes, probably. But there was also something interesting about the spaces he was focusing on, which seemed to be the same kind of everyday, banal spaces I liked too. Of course, he was looking with a far more sophisticated gaze, and so the comparison doesn’t really get very far, but since no one else seemed to share this interest Antonioni somehow offered a wonderful kind of encouragement to me, a wonderful influence.
DC: Did you see the same thing in his other films?
LB: Less so, but mainly because his last two films were never released in the US, not even in art-house theatres, and so I only discovered these later.
DC: What else were you looking at? Or rather, what were you reading at the time? Were you a serious reader?
LB: I thought so, yeah. But then again, if I was that damn serious – like Bruce Nauman – I would have been reading Wittgenstein. I think I was basically not intelligent enough to understand Wittgenstein, which, let’s face it, is embarrassing to admit, because here is someone writing in clear and common English and yet you realise that you have no idea what he’s saying.
DC: But you can be compelled to read things that you don’t quite understand, especially at that age. I remember reading The Tractatus in my early twenties …
LB: Did you understand it?
DC: Well, when it got mathematical I couldn’t grasp it, but there was something about the not-being-able-to-grasp-it that was actually quite thrilling.
LB: I know what you mean. It’s like realising that there is another fascinating system of thought going on the other side of a chasm. You can see it, even if you can’t reach it. When I was young, I think the writer who inflamed me the most was Jorge Luis Borges. I borrowed a copy of Fictions from a friend and started to read it one evening. Didn’t go to sleep till the next morning because I couldn’t put it down. It was amazing. Borges’ view of an idea was that its real test was not in its truth or untruth but in its beauty.
DC: And what it might provoke.
LB: In a number of these stories – like ‘Funes the Memorius’ or ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’ – he deals with the whole question of what is cognition and language. And remember, this was all long before anyone used the word ‘postmodernism’.
DC: Were things like the nouveau roman also on your horizon then?
LB: No. They should have been, but they weren’t. It was only a bit later that I discovered Robbe-Grillet, but that was through film.
DC: So by then the it’s only as a sort of affirmation, rather than anything formative. But anyway, by your early twenties you had gone from someone who wants to be Edward Weston to someone who somehow wants to directly confront the reality of the 1960s.
LB: I’m not sure I wanted to confront it, but there just seemed to be no other choice. I mean, I’m sure it was different for you in England, but I was restricted by the experiences of growing up in Southern California. Where I lived – the place I was raised – was just a small suburban town built around a rich man’s boat harbour. It was incredibly under-populated. It’s called Orange County because most of it was just orange groves. But by the time I graduated from college in 1969 it had a population of four million and had just elected a president – local boy Richard Nixon. So there was incredibly rapid growth. And you couldn’t just take it or leave it: it was really being shoved down your throat. So I started to think of what I was doing as a way of shoving back. It was a reaction. Not by making things or by shouting out obvious moralisations, but by doing what I thought was the very worst thing that anyone could possibly do, which was to hold up a mirror to this place. You know? ‘This is the world that the richest and most powerful country has given to its citizens. This is as good as it gets.’
DC: Talk me through that, because the really interesting thing about a camera is obviously that it is constructed around a mirror. And as an apparatus this mirror is undiscriminating – one day you can be shooting the trees on Point Lobos and the next day can be photographing a seedy gas station, and technically speaking you’re doing exactly the same thing in both. But of course, as a photographer, you’re making big decisions about subject matter and about how it might be pictured. So what exactly might constitute a mirror back?
LB: Well, some of its physical characteristics would be that it should be very high resolution. Photography per se should be transparent. It shouldn’t be grainy. It shouldn’t in any way use the effects of photography.
DC: But for all their grainlessness, your pictures really look like photographs …
LB: Oh yeah, that’s interesting. But what does that mean, though? What else could they look like?
DC: Well, Jeff Wall once told me that he is always ‘trying to make photographs look like eyesight’. When I pressed him on this he said, ‘I know it’s a complicated thing, but when you look at an Atget’ – and it was clearly important to him that Atget was the reference – ‘you know you’re looking at someone who’s very conscious about the translation into the photograph’; that is, he was not thinking about a mimesis of eyesight. And so given what you said earlier about your interest in the facsimile or replica, your pictures therefore often feel highly photographic, and in feeling highly photographic they don’t simulate. They do something else.
LB: What is it you think they do?
DC: I think they draw attention to themselves as photographs and their difference from vision. Or at least, that was my reaction to your pictures of industrial parks when I first saw them. They really felt like photographs.
LB: You’ve got me here. I don’t know how to answer. But it’s really interesting. I mean, most people who were pulling the strings and deciding what was and was not photography, and what was and was not worthy, would have either said my pictures didn’t look like photographs or they looked like very bad photographs. I suppose if there’s a model for that, it would be the kind of photographs that used to be in real estate office windows, as opposed to the mainstream model, which was the American snapshot and family album.
DC: Sure, but both the snapshot and the real estate picture, or even a photographic study of industrial architecture for that matter, are versions of a kind of anonymous, nameless practice. And maybe that’s why people don’t think they look like photography, or ‘good’ photography.
LB: But this again raises the question of invisibility. And it was this question that was really on my mind in the late 1960s and early 70s, certainly with the industrial parks series. I’ll give you my five-minute screed on this: the question ‘is it photography?’ was in effect just a child of the industrial revolution. In fact, there’s a very persuasive argument that says photography was never really invented; it was simply a number of separate techniques that were brought into being, brought together because there was a commercial and a social need for them. But whether legitimate or illegitimate, photography was still a product of the industrial revolution, and what is especially interesting is that photography soon found itself photographing industrialism – that is, it turned its glass eye back on its horrible parent. And what it found there was something discernible to the human eye. It found a world of pulleys and levers and Aristotelian principles that a reasonably logical person could look at and figure out. This, I think, is comforting in a certain way. And then at some later point, probably around the time I was in school, we passed from the mechanical age to the electronic age, where nothing is revealed to the eye. I mean, that’s what intrigued me about Irvine, California, where I first photographed all those industrial parks. Among other things, Irvine was the most highly praised and decorated planned industrial environment in the world. It therefore became the model for many others, not just in the US, but all over the place. For me, this also went beyond Walter Benjamin saying ‘you wouldn’t know what goes on in a Krupp factory’. No, you wouldn’t know what goes on, and it’s no coincidence that you don’t. This is really an architecture and a planning of concealment.
DC: But my feeling is that this doesn’t come about with the shift into the electronic, but it arrives with modernism, particularly in architecture. Because in modernism while there’s a commitment to the idea that form might follow function, there’s also a kind of rationalising, modularising of architecture where once there was only a kind of symbolic language – wherein a house had to look like a house and a bank had to look like a bank. With the modern, a hospital and an apartment and a school and a factory all begin to look like each other.
LB: Yeah, sure, you can trace and project these ideas from Le Corbusier’s writings forward, but in physical reality you don’t really see the consequences until after the Second World War. Because it is only then, to be as crude, as literal, as possible, that some company in Nebraska has to figure out what to do with a hell of a lot of aluminium technology it had previously used for manufacturing cargo planes, or whatever. And in applying this prefabrication to more everyday uses, they know that they can produce on a certain scale. But still, the public had to accept the spaces that they were inhabiting. So we end up with these industrial parks. And they’re all so cheap. This, I guess, is one of the major points – that unless you’re dealing with an architect with real ability and a real sense of luxury, most modern buildings reveal themselves only as more cheaply made than their predecessors. Take the Portland building – you know, the one Graves did in Oregon. It replaced a building which was a tiny and perfect little Beaux-Arts structure. But this was a style the world couldn’t wait to get rid of. And so in its place we got something that looks like what it is. Cheap and tacky.
DC: Let’s talk a little about technology, which similarly never used to be cheap or tacky. I read somewhere that the industrial parks, or maybe all your photographs up to that point, were shot using a 35mm SLR on extremely slow film.
LB: That’s the secret to them. They were all shot on a Leica using microfilm developed for continuous tone.
DC: What, really low ASA, like five or seven?
DC: Wow. How did you arrive at that?
LB: Because I didn’t like looking into the ground glass of large-format cameras; because I didn’t want to learn how to develop cut film; and because I didn’t want to carry around all that heavy equipment. I wanted to be more mobile. With a Leica and this really slow film it seemed technically possible to achieve the results I wanted, and so I thought, why not? Of course, this meant I was freer in the field, but much less free when it came to actually realising prints.
DC: And over how long a period were the industrial parks shot, considering it’s a world that’s changing very, very fast?
LB: Probably through most of 1973, and going back three or four years before that.
DC: For all your mobility, it’s also a very fixed body of work. There are precisely 51 images in total. How did you come upon that number?
LB: Because 51 equates to three rows of 17.
DC: But they are not always exhibited like that. I often see the series as five rows of ten and a one. Regardless of their display, though, how did you determine that you had adequately covered the subject? I mean, when does a photographer say ‘that’s enough’?
LB: I’ve been asking myself that same question for years.
DC: If you’re Jeff Wall, you make just one throw of the dice and you try to capture an idea in a single picture. But he’s probably the only photographer who works this way. Just about everyone else works in series, or thematic groups of pictures in one way or another. And so this 51: it’s really quite a big number. That’s a lot to hold in your mind when looking at a sequence of images in a book or exhibition. And it feels as if it’s complete. I feel like I’m with a mind that’s thinking about covering something in its entirety.
LB: I’m sure my pictures never exhaust a subject. Fifty-one probably just exhausted my engagement with the subject, or what I felt I could do. And the thing about the industrial parks was that they were not put together chronologically. They were assembled in an attempt to make the series as non-narrative as possible, even if you always get a narrative feeling anyway – I mean, you take 25 pictures and shuffle them like cards and every time you deal them out it looks like there’s a narration. But it was supposed to come full circle. Or at least, its ambition was to come full circle, even if in some of the pictures you start to see me drawing away from the buildings and focusing more on the empty flood plain that they are sitting on.
DC: There’s also a horizon in one or two others.
LB: That’s probably where they would have gone if the series had continued, but I thought I would save that for the next body of work. I figured 51 should be enough to communicate my vision of this.
DC: Were you thinking of it as something to be published or exhibited, or both?
LB: Both. Always both. The book – The New Industrial Parks Near Irvine, California came out in 1974. It was designed by the photographer Tom Barrow, who I haven’t seen for so long.
DC: I saw him recently in Albuquerque. He took me to lunch after a lecture I gave and drove me around.
LB: Tom is older than me. His father was a pharmacist, I think, and he died very young from heart problems. I remember Tom always believed he had some congenital proclivity to heart disease and wouldn’t live very long. So it’s good to know he’s still with us.
DC: The book is pretty extraordinary as a design, but didn’t you want to design it yourself? I’ve always thought of you as really quite a keen graphic designer. There is a number of artists of your generation who have a very distinct graphic sense.
LB: Well, Tom was very nice about this. Basically I told him what I wanted and he produced it. We had to work this way because I don’t know any of the technicalities of graphic design – this was before QuarkXpress or any of the desktop publishing programs, and I had no clue about what you actually give a printer in addition to the original prints. So I just explained to Tom what I wanted and we went through each page, one after the other. It was all done in one mask. It’s about as austere as anything I could think of from that time.
DC: How come it was published in English and German?
LB: It was in part because I’d seen the Bechers’ work and realised that there might be some interesting things going on in Germany and some interesting people in Germany or an audience who would appreciate my work. And guess what, 35 years later and this audience did appear.
DC: Well, it was not even 35, it was pretty soon after you released the book. And today, of course, almost all your titles are produced through the German publisher Steidl.
LB: Oh yes, Gerhard Steidl is not just a printer or publisher but a patron. He’s interested in projects. And the scale of his ambition is almost like Tintoretto – he wants to cover every wall in the house. He’s therefore patron to every possible kind of photography book, including quite a few he thought he really didn’t want. And his ambition is not only to print these but to print them beautifully. Beyond that, he just hopes to make enough money to keep going.
DC: All those Karl Lagerfeld books he does must help.
LB: Yeah, King Karl has done a lot. I heard him once on television, a late-night talk show thing, and just like anyone else, I noticed him because he’s impossible to miss, dressed just like Karl Lagerfeld in his black suit and big white collar. I remember he was talking about photography and about art, and the host was asking the predictable question, ‘Is there anything else you’d have liked to have been if you weren’t a fashion designer?’ And he says, ‘Well, of course, I would have wanted to have been an artist.’ The simpering presenter then says, ‘Mais, monsieur est un grand artiste en couture’, etc, etc, and Lagerfeld just says, ‘Couture my ass! That’s just dress-making. I’m talking about art.’ Karl Lagerfeld saying that on French television! He’s probably totally corrupt, but he’s not stupid. Although he is a lousy photographer.
DC: But back in 1974, who were the other photographers you were looking at? Did you know people like Robert Adams, for example?
LB: I did. The first time I went to New York – to show my work to people who in turn showed it to Leo Castelli who, to my astonishment and unbelievable pleasure, would eventually decide to take it on board – I saw two things that were really heartening to me. The first was a bizarre show at MoMA – bizarre in the sense … well, it was Peter Bunnell’s idea to always oppose things and he did this by exhibiting Emmet Gowin next to Robert Adams. So with Rob you had this unbelievable purity, while with Emmet you had these dark foresty scenes and his wife peeing in front of a tree. Robert’s work, especially, was amazing, totally fantastic. His book, The New West, came out shortly afterwards and I reviewed it for Art in America. The second was a show at the Sonnabend gallery of the Bechers, which of course just delighted me. It was sort of like Robinson Crusoe finding the footprint. Before that I had gone through a period in my life when I felt like a minority of one – a mad man, who nobody gives a shit about, producing work nobody wanted to engage with. So when I came across something or someone who in some way touched upon my interests, I found it an enormous validation. And when the work was so good, like with Robert or the Bechers, it gave me even more validation.
DC: And within a year you and Adams, the Bechers and six other American photographers are all curated together by William Jenkins in the ‘New Topographics’ show.
LB: That was just a moment of perfect confluence. If you think about all those people now – photographers like Nick Nixon, Frank Gohlke, Joe Deal, Stephen Shore or Henry Wessel – you could never have shown their work from five years earlier or five years later. But at that particular point in time it all came together.
DC: So it felt significant at the time?
LB: I’m often asked that question, so I’ve gotta know, right? It opened at the Eastman House in Rochester, upstate New York. I remember they did this very clean, beautiful little catalogue. But nobody came to see it or review it. They finally invited a critic up from Art in America and gave him the George Eastman suite at the local Ritz Carlton or wherever. He stayed for a week, looked at the show, and then wrote a good, intelligent review. That seemed to be the end of it. The exhibition did go on to the Otis Art Institute Art Gallery in Los Angeles, which was my doing because I was very good friends with the director, and then to the art museum at Princeton, which of course was very prestigious, but it was there over the summer when the place was deserted. When that ended nothing more was heard about it. A few people even started talking about a ‘backlash’ against the show. I never got that. I mean, how can you have a backlash when you never even had a frontlash? But anyway, things went quiet again until the mid-1980s when Jonathan Green wrote a book on American photography and called it the single most influential photography exhibition of all time. I have to say I was incredibly happy about that, but also totally astonished.
DC: I think it gets caught up with a certain kind of art history that’s always looking for landmarks rather than precedents.
LB: It’s also a reflection of an art world that has thrived on movements, most of which have been named by their enemies. So if it was just Stephen Shore and Robert Adams, then that’s interesting, but if we put them and the Bechers and Baltz and Wessel and Joe Deal together, then it becomes a movement and people will pay more attention. And they did.
DC: But arguably, I’d have thought you were closer to what Jenkins was after in curating the show than anyone else in the exhibition.
LB: That’s a good question. Although, in actuality I think I was somewhere in the centre of that spectrum. If you look at someone like Henry Wessel, for example, you’ll find a photographer with a very strange and beautiful eye, and someone whose world is full of objects which are not mute. But if you push a little further in his direction you get much more traditional street photography.
DC: Henry is also a shutter photographer, whereas the rest of you are lens photographers.
LB: Henry was one of the few who didn’t use a tripod.
DC: But the cut of the shutter is what makes the picture. Things are moving and then they’re stopped, which has never really interested you.
LB: I could never move that fast! We used to play racquetball, he and I – he’s a lot quicker than I am.
DC: There’s also an interesting ambiguity to this moment. Having got into the medium at 11 through Edward Weston, and with your very obvious affection for photography, there comes a point in the mid-1970s when like a lot of others you’re saying, ‘I’m not a photographer’.
LB: Are we talking about photography, or are we talking about the world of photography and its history and its historians, its networks, its personalities, its gods… because I don’t credit any of that. I think as a medium it’s brilliant. And it’s brilliant because of the simplest things that it does, and does well.
DC: But not everybody’s interested in that.
LB: Ha ha, I know, I know, I’m aware of that. But you know, if you speak to photo historians they can tell you everything about when Stieglitz reprinted his pictures of Venice and made the water black so as to bring forward the plane of the buildings in accordance with cubism, but then they can’t tell you anything about cubism. Photography has always been presented to us as a separate creation which has nothing to do with anything else. Yet it very clearly has a great deal to do with other contemporary forms of expression, in art, cinema, what have you. It also has a great deal to do with the objective social realities and conditions in the time of its making. At MoMA John Szarkowski really fostered the whole idea that photography was something special (along with a really distasteful nationalist sensibility); that it was a different creation. I don’t believe that for a second. I simply think there are people who don’t want to confront. I also don’t think of it as the major medium of the twentieth century.
DC: Secondary mediums are still significant.
LB: Sure, it’s a significant medium, and it’s still a medium in the sense that you can’t replace it with something else. It’s like trying to whistle the Seagram building. Impossible.
DC: Beyond the case of ‘New Topographics’, what’s your feeling as to how your photography was understood and received in that period? I ask this because I was talking to Robert Cumming recently, who like you was with Castelli, and he said, ‘Well, you know I got lots of invitations to go with photography galleries, but I didn’t want to because I was also making sculpture and I was making paintings and I was making video.’
LB: There also wasn’t a photography gallery around at the time that was any good. So maybe he was just being diplomatic.
DC: But were you in shows that made those connections explicit? For example, shows alongside minimalist sculpture?
LB: No, that only really came later. At that stage there was a distinct apartheid between photography and the rest of the arts. But this also meant that a lot of people who were being made out to be second-class citizens actually enjoyed this undervaluing, because they could be very important players in a very small field. As a case in point, I was in the Paris Biennale once upon a time. I don’t know how they pulled that off because the Paris Biennale didn’t have photography, and the reason they didn’t have photography was simply the logic of the marketplace. In other words, if they saw a photograph by Robert Frank it was valued at $700, but if they saw another photograph by Sol LeWitt it was $4,000. The result was that your viewer or potential buyer would be mystified. They’d scratch their head and leave without buying either. Of course, there’s always been an audience for photography, but it is only fairly recently that there’s been a market. The thin end of the wedge into that market now is work like Jeff Wall’s or Andreas Gursky’s. In other words, tableaux images, photographs that most resemble paintings.
DC: What about the argument that’s made about photographers not having quite embraced scale the way they could have done, because they’d somehow internalised the page?
LB: But in the 1980s those opportunities were not so available.
DC: But it could be done. It was possible to get hold of big paper and some photographers and artists did it.
LB: Who? And who on a consistent basis? I think it was only really the Becher students who were the first to seriously commit to making large-scale work.
DC: But when Szarkowski does the Walker Evans retrospective at MoMA in 1970 or 71 he gets very worried about audiences having to look at two hundred 8x10s, so he has 12 of them blown up mural-size and mounted on Masonite – although he says these are just graphic punctuation, as if a spectator would complain that they were not the real thing.
LB: Deep down everybody’s Edward Steichen, huh?
DC: But in one sense he’s right. I mean, in many ways I find detailed, rich 8x10s incredibly difficult to look at in a gallery . . .
LB: It makes photography into a handheld medium.
DC: . . . I’m 12 inches from the wall. That’s not a comfortable position to stand in.
LB: But ask yourself this, why are they 8×10? Why aren’t they, for example, 6×13? Because that’s simply the size the paper comes in.
DC: I understand that, but surely artworks should come in the size in which they are produced, whatever that might be. And yet it is also very interesting that when certain photographs are blown up they look grotesque. For example, I’ve occasionally seen a Cartier Bresson big or a Winogrand big, and they fail. You realise that the pictures only work at the smaller size. Somehow those photographers had internalised the page as their scale.
LB: Yes, but everything does that. I can’t think of any images that work beautifully at all different scales. For example, my gallerist in Cologne has a beautiful little print by Gurskys, of the port at Salerno.
DC: It’s his best picture.
LB: It’s a wonderful picture, and it’s about what commerce represents in Europe today. The print he had was really small. It was very lovely, but it had almost no power. But when you see the same image measured in metres rather than centimetres you’ll find that it’s still lovely, but it now has tremendous power.
DC: I completely agree, but I also think there’s something about the relation between the architecture of the space in which the work is exhibited and the work itself. You’ve always managed to balance this by thinking of the artwork as an ensemble – as a sequence or as a grid. Of course, this also comes back to the question of the gallery versus the book, and the two different ways of representing your work.
LB: It was never my ambition to make a career out of making tableaux. I mean, I’ve always had too much fascination for cinema to create singular images, and so I wanted my photographs to be like paper movies. Not necessarily narrative in structure or composition, although what the hell does narrative actually mean, because we can compose a narrative out of any two things placed together. But in a grid it’s interesting because you can’t control the order in which people see things and the emphasis they give to them. The grid becomes a screen and you’ll be drawn to one thing or another, but there’s no guarantee. In a book there is. Candlestick Point as a book is different from Candlestick Point as a wall piece. That was the first time I ever did anything like that.
DC: And the obvious thing about your grids is that they are punctured with gaps or voids; sections of blank space that become almost panoramic.
LB: It’s about reading something in a certain way. Where I felt like Candlestick finally succeeded, and where I felt there was a form of culmination, has to do with the fact that there’s not a standout picture. There’s not a single image that someone could make a strong case for being a really great picture, meaning by definition the others are not so good. Rather, they all seem to be on a level. I like this and I like that. Whereas in Industrial Parks the picture on the back of the book is a picture that everybody loves.
DC: Wouldn’t that be an argument for kicking it out?
LB: Yeah, perhaps, although I didn’t see it that way. Maybe I wasn’t tough enough. There’s actually another image in there, which I think is much more interesting – the shot of the long building on the horizon. It’s a personal favourite. This also reminds me of a time I was in Castelli and the curator from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts came by, saying he had received authorisation to purchase just one of the pieces. I had realised a little earlier that people were buying complete sets of images and were then breaking them up into individual images. I thought ‘Fuck that. Why should they do it, and not me?’ I used to figure that as long as I could keep the images together as a book, or as long as I could have a few complete sets in museums, then it would be okay. But then this Boston curator kept asking me for my personal preference. ‘What’s your favourite among those that are still available?’ And so I showed him this image of the building on the horizon and he said, ‘Well, I don’t really think so.’ He finally bought something, but I can’t remember now which one. He also gave me these filthy looks for the rest of the day. It dawned on me later that I think he imagined I was trying to sell him the dog, the one that nobody else wanted – let’s see if this guy from Boston will fall for it.
DC: But in a way that’s kind of true, or part of the reason you like it. It is one of the most delicate but it’s also one of the most belligerent images.
LB: It’s a little hard to get into, yeah.
DC: That’s an interesting aspect, the hard-to-get-into – the idea that a photograph might be impenetrable while at the same time showing you something. I’m sensing this tension is one which has animated you for more than a decade.
LB: I’ve always been interested in trying to understand how much of a context we can really create for something, and generating a kind of legibility without actually using text. Of course there later came a stage when I did use text because it was the best and clearest thing to do. But at that point in the late 1980s I avoided it. This was also partly in reaction to the artist and photographer Allan Sekula, who was using a lot of text and making really feeble images and claiming that one couldn’t be supported without the other. My thought at the time was perhaps if he’d made better images, they wouldn’t need the text. But then later Sekula did a project called Fish Story, which again combined the two, but the images were so much better and the thing was really good. In Fish Story you no longer feel that when an image falls short he’s there to do with language what he had failed to do with the camera. It’s leaner somehow, and much more critical. I think MoMA just bought the whole thing.
DC: I remember seeing the exhibition and hating it. But after reading the book over a weekend I came out a different person.
LB: Victor Burgin and Francette Pacteau were here recently and they were also talking about it. Victor said after reading the book he’s gone from being a Protestant to a Catholic.
DC: What’s interesting is that in Sekula’s writing the practices he holds up as beacons are always experimental filmmaking and documentaries. It’s never photography. There was no good photography, if you asked Allan.
LB: Well, he certainly didn’t like my work. He wrote about my work twice and both times he was highly critical. But I was sorry when he died. A good adversary is hard to find these days.
DC: You mentioned Victor Burgin. His is an interesting parallel path to yours, in that you both move away from photography into other practices at the same time – montage, collage, mixed-media, video, text, etc. You also share a very great interest in architecture, or at least architecture understood socially, economically, politically. How close do you feel to Victor’s work?
LB: I’m a big fan. I have been since I saw his poster work ‘What Does Possession Mean to You?’ in the mid-1970s. He’s also very good company. He’s back in England now after all those years in California. I could never imagine him in Santa Cruz. He is so un-Santa Cruz. That’s the only spot in northern California where you get beaches and surfers. It’s a beautiful little town, but it’s really only for bliss-ninnies and airheads.
DC: I think he was so pissed off with Thatcher that he had to leave England.
LB: But with that attitude there’d only be about 15 million people left in Britain.
DC: Did your own move away from photography similarly correspond with your physical move – this time, away from America and to France?
LB: Yes. At a certain point – in effect immediately after doing Candlestick Point – I felt that I had done everything I had wanted to do or was capable of doing in that direction, and I wanted another method of making that work public, plus another family situation, another country, another continent.
DC: Did you speak French?
LB: I still don’t. Or at least not a version of French that any French person would understand. At the time, I just remember wanting everything to change. By the end of the 1980s I was pretty disgusted with the way the Reagan world had taken over the art world. We had all this crappy tenth-rate stuff like the Neue Wilde, who were not all bad guys, although most of them were. All the rigour had gone out of the art world. The rift between the bourgeoisie and the artist, which began around the time of Manet, had been healed. Now the artists were completely bourgeois themselves. They could paint easily for a place in the Hamptons because they had a place in the Hamptons. Armani suits were what they wanted. But I hated capitalism. I still hate capitalism. And out of that I came to the idea that France, Europe, anywhere in Europe, would be a more socially democratic place in which to live and work. Of course, socialism has its own evils and its own bureaucracy. In the US every artist can be successful just as long as he manages to kiss the feet of every collector and money guy around. Here, you’re obliged to kiss the feet of everyone involved in the culture industry. There’s that famous Russian saying about how the communists lied about communism, but they told the truth about capitalism. Of course, this makes you think who you can possibly have an allegiance with, but in the end European socialism is still better.
DC: But with this move to France the world that you’re attempting to picture or articulate also changes. There’s a good line in the Le Bal catalogue about how you moved from images of landscape to the landscape of images. So it’s no longer about a place just outside of Reno, it’s more abstract.
LB: It’s also a question of history. Everything that I photographed in the US, and the American West in particular, is in so many ways ahistorical. Its history – at least its white settler history – is very short and pretty ugly. And in a certain sense it’s not getting any prettier. There was this creepiness there – partly because every place had grown up so fast, like mushrooms in spring, and they could also disappear just as quickly. Everything was transitory. I therefore never felt that there was any security in being in a city. There was no monument of continued human endeavour. Whereas here in Europe, of course, it’s all monument.
DC: But arguably your European work becomes more dystopian in character.
LB: Yes, maybe. Most of my more recent pieces were also made as public works, which meant I had a responsibility to make something that someone could encounter on the street, which I think is different from the responsibility of making something for a museum. I mean, we’re not dealing only with consenting adults, we’re dealing with a person who happens to be stuck in a traffic jam who happens to look at a billboard. It all became a little less subtle in the sense that it was easier to read and figure out.
DC: It’s interesting that you talk about your new audience like that. On the street. The vision I have of you is of an artist who when he’s in America is slowly stalking these alienated, entropic landscapes, and then when you get to Europe, it’s a different kind of social interaction, of local meetings and community groups.
LB: Well, I was fed up with the Marlboro Man model of the artist. It’s lonely. Do you think it’s a picnic walking around Park City, Utah for four months?
DC: But historically, so many photographers have been socially dysfunctional outsiders. They like it there. They go to graveyards. They go to the banlieue. They like the edge. And nobody is making them do that.
LB: I didn’t say I didn’t like it! I just got lonely. In total I spent three years doing stuff on Park City, and for at least one of those years I was all by myself. Doing what – being heroic? Printing the largest edition ever printed of anything? (Until some Japanese guy saw it and immediately made an even larger one.)
DC: If you were making work now what would it be?
LB: If I knew that I’d be making it.
DC: Would you? I somehow felt you decided to put an end to making.
LB: No, of course not. I would probably be looking into making work that is situational, transient, ephemeral. This seems to be the possibility now for art. The other end of the spectrum would be to make really polished items for undereducated billionaires. Although it can’t be much fun doing that, and even less fun trying to do it and failing. You know, turning out some neo-pop thing that’s even dumber than the guy who’s gonna buy it – it flatters his intellect by being dumber than he is. So, no, I’d probably be making something non-marketable.
DC: Did you live off sales? Did you teach?
LB: I did everything for a while. I came from a family that had middle-middle-class money, but I was a spoiled only child, and so I got some money from my family and bought my own house. Didn’t have to pay rent. At the same time I was always teaching whenever I could get a job, and I was always selling work, although this never really gave me enough to live on. Not even enough to pay my expenses in doing it. This went on until about 2004. And then suddenly my work started to skyrocket at auctions. This was work I had made 40 years earlier. Maybe it was a question of it finally being presented to a public that has a different understanding of it than before. My German dealer Thomas Zander tells me that he has never once sold anything of mine to a photography collector. And I’ve also only ever made things in very limited numbers – many of which I give away to friends – perhaps three or four prints at most. Of course, every artist you interview will always say the same thing: ‘Among my collectors I have some very intelligent people. And the people who collect other people’s works are idiots.’ Or words to that effect. All artists think only their own collectors are geniuses.
DC: But it must have been heartening to suddenly have this great interest in your work.
LB: It was, it really was. For the first time in my life, aged about 55, I was finally able to make a kind of living from my work. By 60 it was a good living. I’m 67 now. I’ve never hit the stage when I can drive around in a Ferrari, but in my old age I have a certain degree of financial security. And the good notices we have received for the Le Bal show are also, of course, incredibly pleasing. It seems that the people who perhaps didn’t quite get my work have retired and a new generation of younger curators has arrived for whom that boring old distinction between art and photography never even existed.
DC: There is also a degree of nostalgia now, which in itself creates problems. I once spoke to Stephen Shore about this, who admitted to a certain apprehension about how a diner from the 1970s or industrial park or whatever is suddenly romantic. It worried him that there is now an exoticism that absolutely wasn’t there at the time. The ‘old problems’, as Brecht would say.
LB: I think for better or worse Bill [William] Eggleston’s work plays to that all the time – an older, gentler way of life that supported itself by using other human beings as slaves. For me, it’s a little hard to feel nostalgic for that now. But still, he’s working, and if Brecht was right, we know that the one thing about those problems is that we have survived them.