In Chicago there are two exhibitions of late 1960s architectural photography approximately two miles apart: Las Vegas Studio: Images from the Archives of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown is on view at the Graham Foundation while Lewis Baltz: Prototypes/Ronde de Nuit is presented at the Art Institute. Comparing Las Vegas Studio’s documentary photographs to Baltz’s “Prototypes” seems like it should be a straightforward endeavor. The two sets of images focus on commercial architecture of the west, including signs, parking lots, roadways and building facades. Elements of the New Topographics movement strongly affiliated with Baltz’s practice can also be found among Venturi and Scott Brown’s photographs of the automobile-focused architecture of the Las Vegas Strip. Yet, instead of highlighting these similarities, viewing both exhibitions in rapid succession more clearly highlights the visual distinctions between a group of artistic images posing as documentary photographs and a body of archival photographs presented as conceptual works of art.
Lewis Baltz’s forty Prototypes hang single-file, in numbered order, around the perimeter of a single gallery in the Art Institute’s Modern Wing. Rigid uniformity dominates the space: each silver gelatin print is identical in size and frame, all titled according to the city in which they were taken. The persistent sunlight, stark commercial buildings and absence of people in the images definitively allude to the weather, sensibility and sprawl characteristic of the west coast. Other than this the Prototypes provide minimal details that distinguish the individual California cities from one another.
The notation of arbitrary specifics as the works’ titles causes the images to be positioned as documentary in nature, but this stylization is then contradicted by the way Baltz presents his subjects within the photographs. Each image appears carefully constructed with precise attention paid to the basic photographic elements of composition, contrast and clarity. In Laguna Niguel, a forgettable building shares the stage with an equally banal parking lot, causing neither to be shown it its entirety. Instead, the forms of the building and parking lot together create the work of art; the photographed objects dissipate into a two-dimensional construction as abstracted from reality as the man-made landscape that serves as this artwork’s medium. Through its deep contrasts, isolated lines and highly conscious framing, in Laguna Niguel, the real elements of a city turn into elements of art abstracted from reality.
In contrast to the minimalist installation of the Prototypes, Las Vegas Studio appears ornate in its hanging throughout the rooms and stairwells of the Madler House residential building housing the Graham Foundation. Although Venturi and Scott Brown primarily intended for the images in this exhibition to be used as documentation for their 1968 study of Las Vegas, seeing the photographs independent from the final study raises the question of how they function as works of art in their own right.
It is known that the group visited Ed Ruscha’s studio immediately prior to their arrival in Las Vegas; they also directly reference the artist’s empirical approach in the panoramic, street level series of images titled “Ed Ruscha” elevation of the Strip, an imitation of Every Building on the Sunset Strip. Despite the influence of Ruscha and the use subject matter similar to the pursuits of New Topographics artists, most of the photographs in Las Vegas Studio are overtly aesthetic and composed; highly saturated colors, strategically illuminated neon lights and unexpected juxtapositions between commercial elements suggest the architects aimed to accomplish more than merely document the landscape before them.
Particularly in the context of being framed, matted and hung salon style for exhibition, the Las Vegas photographs appear as though they aspire become works of fine art, rather than documentary footage. Their titles are straightforward and factual like those of the Prototypes, but unlike Baltz’s approach, the meaning of the Las Vegas Studio pieces still gravitates back to the physical subjects; a photograph of the Riviera’s parking lot and sign is entirely about the Riviera’s parking lot and sign. Although this gleaming image is easily among the more beautiful photographs of a parking lot ever created, the work of art is signifier of the casino, more similar to the physical Rivera sign than to the the parking lot of Baltz’s Laguna Niguel. Hardly a failure, the fact that the Las Vegas Studio images aptly represent the landscape of Las Vegas at the time of Venturi and Scott Brown’s seminal study demonstrates the inherent success of the project; when viewed in tandem with Baltz’s Prototypes, the questions raised by each exhibition diverge but ultimately offer a more complete view of their place and time.