Picks and Pans Review: San Quentin Point

updated 02/09/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/09/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Lewis Baltz

Photography can aestheticize anything, not by hiding imperfections but by making them the very subject of the photograph. Baltz's study of the garbage-strewn mud flats surrounding California's San Quentin prison is a case in point. When he photographs a rusty can lying beside a cleft rock on parched, pebbled ground, or a crumpled sheet of plastic speared by the whitened branches of a dead weed, he invests them with a particularity; their haphazard decrepitude seems as wondrous in its way as the symmetry of a snowflake. In the book's concluding essay, cinematographer Nestor Almendros is quoted: "By means of the camera's view-finder, the outside world goes through a process of selection and organization.... Like the microscope, the frame is an analyzing tool." Isolated within the frame, these scruffy dumping grounds become mystifying tableaux, lyrical and complex in form. Some of them suggest the archaeological ruins of a vanished civilization—bulldozer tracks in dried mud look like ritual markings at a primitive religious site; a horrendously twisted bedspring conjures up Hiroshima. At first glance, Baltz's style seems blandly objective: Everything is viewed calmly, closely, in impeccable black-and-white detail. But what he's really doing is using the camera's apparent neutrality as a device for creating an obsessive mood. Baltz's work, like that of John Gossage and Robert Adams, suggests there is no such thing as an objective photograph. All 58 images are so similar that the book is enervating to go through in one sitting. Yet each picture depicts a unique and improbable microworld, vibrating with a kind of dread aliveness. The pictures are all the same yet all different—a little like human beings. Like humans, they don't have to be pretty to be beautiful. (Aperture, $50)

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