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Lewis Baltz - Biography

Lewis Baltz, MFA, born in Newport Beach, California on September 12, 1945, is one of the most influential photographers working today. Lewis Baltz is currently based in Paris and Venice, and since 2002 he has been a professor of photography at the European Graduate School EGS. Lewis Baltz graduated from San Francisco Art Institute (1969) and holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from Claremont Graduate School (1971). He has received several awards and scholarships, including a scholarship from the National Endowment for the Arts (1973, 1977), the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship (1977), the US-UK Bicentennial Exchange Fellowship (1980), and the Charles Brett Memorial Award (1991). He has presented his work in numerous exhibitions around the world, including the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art among others. His work is in the collections of many institutions, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Metropolitan Museum of Photography, Tokyo; the Art Institute of Chicago; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki. Lewis Baltz writes for many reviews and regularly contributes to L'Architecture D'Aujourd'hui. Lewis Baltz' aesthetics is often referred to as 'counter aesthetics', as it reveals desolate landscapes and forgotten places with a dispassionate eye. His style is apparently expressionless and obsessive, as he examines his subjects over long periods of time. Since the 1990s he has worked on information architecture, exposing the crisis of technology, and following his interest in surveillance and cybernetics.

Lewis Baltz is best known as one of the icons of the 'New Topography' movement in photography of the late seventies. Presented together in the exhibition 'New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-altered Landscape' in 1975 (Rochester, NY), this group of young photographers brought a shift in landscape photography in showing the images of a world far removed from an heroic vision of America. This move was also illustrated by the subject matter of urban and suburban realities under change, as well as the photographers' commitment to a critical and ironic eye of contemporary American society. Thirty years after its opening, this exhibition still remains one with the strongest impact on landscape photography world-wide in its attempt to define both objectivity and the role of the artist in photographic creation. Lewis Baltz' contribution to the show consisted of photographs of an industrial warehouse complex in Southern California, in which the images of blank concrete walls and prefabricated buildings offer a critical position toward the claustrophobia of urban life. Often displayed in a grid format, it is important to Lewis Baltz that these pictures are seen collectively as a group or series, as for him one image should not be taken as more true or significant than another. Through his original approach, Lewis Baltz most clearly embodies the essence of the movement’s critical depiction of the American landscape. This, according to some authors, makes him more closely aligned with conceptual art than with traditional photography.

The New Industrial Parks near Irvine, California was the first in what is today considered to be an informal trilogy of works – with Park City (1980) and San Quentin (1986) – that exposes the crisis of technology and man by documenting the changing American landscape. The landscape has become 'landscape-as-real-estate', and Lewis Baltz has used the images of construction sites as a way to deconstruct the surrounding society.

In Nevada (1977), Lewis Baltz presented a new narrative style, alternating panoramic views of the horizon with photographs of construction sites, trailer parks and streets to show the devoured, open landscape. This was his first step toward the intensely detailed mapping he explored over the next decade and that culminated in his epic work Candlestick Project. The latter series was photographed between 1984 and 1988, exploring in detail a landscape left nearly without any natural reference. It was created in an area between the airport and the ballpark south of San Francisco.

After he moved to Paris, Lewis Baltz made large-scale installation works in color with soundtracks: Le Ronde de Nuit (1992), Docile Bodies (1995), and The Politics of Bacteria (1995). In these works, he continued pursuing his interest in fabricated environments and their impact on ecology and society, addressing the blurred interaction of humans and machines and taking us deeply into ambiguous cyberworlds. In these worlds, we see the representation of multiple forms of control and power exercised over human beings.

In his work from the beginning of the 1990s, 89-91 Sites of Technology, Lewis Baltz showcases places where the technical research takes place for companies such as Toshiba, Mitsubishi, and France Telecom, capturing on film the invisible concept of development. He started this project at the end of the 1980s and pursued it for many years.

Significant for his position on photographers' practice, Lewis Baltz shows no hesitation when thinking about or exploring the use of digital images; for him, digital technology is just another way of encoding reality.

Lewis Baltz is a professor of conceptual photography at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, where he conducts an Intensive Summer Seminar.