Lewis Baltz & David Harvey talks at Tate, (2003)

   Photography and the limits of the document - part 4 can be found here:


   Usually when photographers or associated thinkers are invited to give a talk they give a lecture. It's the way it's done, it's even expected - although hardly demanded.

   Having the key texts to build on and the vocabularly necessary to serve up meaningful ideas it's a surprise then when on close examination that much of what is dished up rarely holds up to scrutiny on a sentence-to-sentence level. It's nearly always half-baked thinking. Unfortunately in the arts being part of an established discourse is seen as proof of belonging. It's all very cautious, and almost certainly indicates a lack of confidence. In a generation photography has gone from being an area of minimal interest to intellectuals to now being dominated by theory.

   The 2003 Tate Lewis Baltz/David Harvey lecture (link above) did what most such presentations aim to do, first of all establish that both were progressive thinkers, although Harvey edged Baltz in this regard by being an unreconstructed Marxist. He chided Baltz on occasion - clearly Baltz had not done enough to advance the cause. Oddly an audience member would go on to propose a possible future collaboration between the two: something that host Steve Edwards warmly welcomed as a thrilling prospect - failing to acknowledge the extreme discomfort both Baltz and Harvey had just barely concealed while responding to the suggestion.

   Baltz also shuddered under Robert Linsley's praise that his photographs were highly seductive if you could get past the first impression that they were uninteresting, an accusation in Baltz's eyes that riled, more so for not being new but one that he clearly had never effectively side-stepped. The risk to him as a contemporary artist was that if his images were beguiling visually then they could be described as 'fetishistic'. This is a key term of ridicule in conceptual art. While in everyday life we would be be oppressed by monotony if we did not have things that actually excited us fetishism is the pejroative used by academics and acolytes who argue all endeavour be subsumed to a socio-political and chiefly intellectual viewpoint that they propound - which ironically makes words and language their particular fetish of choice. What they affect to find suspicious in art when they apply the word 'fetishistic' is a suspicion of any kind of pleasure or attachment, whether it is in response to pictures or otherwise. It is not accidental that the word in normal parlance refers to sexual compulsion which needs psychiatric treatment to resolve. This unsaid correspondence would in a sense locate the fetishist-loathing art-theorist alongside the therapist in a 1950's Soviet institution whose purpose was to correct another kind of ideologically decadent wrong-thinking. The desire to reject fetishism is arcane and hypocritical. While capitalism commodifies art and in the process motivates much of its production it does not proscribe it in the haranguing way theoretical posturing does - although both can equally alienate the artist from their own art.

   It was not that many years ago that I discovered that Baltz did not produce out-of-camera 'straight prints'. I think I came across one of his work-prints online. A huge amount of effort had gone on in the darkroom to establish the careful relationship of tonalities. He made detailed notes (for himself, presumably) on how to exactly recreate the print. The final appearance of those images clearly mattered a huge amount to him. Why would this level of carefulness (either in the original shooting or the print making) be necessary when the simple object of the whole exercise was to express concern about unfettered land use? An Ed Rushca-esque Twentysix gasoline stations snapshot approach would have sufficed. In fact Rushca didn't even feel the need to necessarily take pictures himself, he was happy to sub-contract the making, but Baltz was clearly energised by the practise of photography - although perhaps keenly aware of the precariousness of the position that put him in.

   Baltz's manner in his talk and answering questions was personable at all times. While Harvey seemed twitchy, over-looked, and ramped for an acrimonious response from Baltz after having needled him, Baltz was charmingly unruffled (or feigned to be) and spoke at all times in an amiable way, as controlled and seductive as his best photography.  Curiously, though, he touched his face a lot, often gripping his forehead. I wondered if he had a headache or else was anxious or if this was a particular mannerism of his. More unhappily, I got the impression he may have harboured doubt in the value of anything he had produced.

   Most of the members of the audience were from inside the art phtography business, writers or image-makers, who took the chance when it came to clumsily platform their largely unconnected area of thinking -  which meant the answers they got back from the two men at the front were totally unrelated, as is nearly always the case in Q&As.

   Except for one guy near the back who didn't appear to be weighed down by artist-ego or have status in the hierarchy to protect or promote, who commented that he had just scooted around the show (Cruel and Tender: the Real in the Twentieth Century Photograph) and noticed 'nearly all the images were frontal - except by the Bechers'. It was a perceptive point yet could easily have gone down badly - Baltz could have been defensive or countered that in fact not all his work was frontal, but that would have been disingenuous, 'frontal' had indeed been a key approach for him once, less so after the 1980s. So instead he explained possible reasons for square-on frontal image making being so prevalent in 'documentary'. This was reasonable and a fairly insightful reply but didn't artistically justify such widespread conformity, which was the floor opening up underneath him - and then, unexpectedly, he invited further thoughts from the questioner. I really liked that there was suddently space made for an exchange of ideas, person to person, possibly outside established positions - and it is a shame this was very quickly interrupted.

   I speculated that Baltz would have more usually displayed this kind of openess and encouragement when he was teaching fresh-faced photography students around a table. I wonder if he ever considered the chance that someone might say something one day that might even cause so many rigid ideological structures to suddenly collapse.

Lewis Baltz: East Wall, Western Carpet Mills, 1231 Warner, Tustin, (1974)