Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
"I tried to show myself as an anthropologist from a different solar system. What kind of new world was being built here?"
Lewis Baltz, a photographer famed for his stark images of the built environment, died this week at age 69, after what's been reported as an extended illness.
Baltz was a leader in the "New Topographics" movement, a turning point in 1970s landscape photography. Lenses shifted away from idealized views of nature to "stark industrial landscapes, suburban sprawl, and everyday scenes not usually given a second glance," according to SFMOMA. In 1975, the George Eastman House in New York hosted "New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape," the exhibition that gave the movement its name. The show was restaged at SFMOMA in 2010.
Born 1945 in Newport Beach, California, Baltz often referred to how growing up in a rapidly urbanizing region influenced his work. "A new world was being born," he said in a 1998 episode of Contacts. "It was simply a new, homogenized American environment that was marching across the land and being exported... And no one wanted to confront this."
Praised as "seminal" by the The Washington Post, Baltz's best known series—including “The New Industrial Parks,” and "The Tract Houses"—presented the long-reaching effects of urban sprawl and industrial manufacturing with an aim of hyper-objectivity.
"I tried to show myself as an anthropologist from a different solar system, someone recording events that transpired in front of their camera," he said. "What kind of new world was being built here? Was it a world people could live in? Really?"
Below is the aforementioned episode of Contacts. Watch it for a bare entrée into Baltz's photographic lexicon: Views of the city large and small, seductive and repulsive, familiar and damning.