Night Lights

One of photographer Lewis Baltz's subjects, the Hotel Rothaus in Zurich, Switzerland, is flanked by two streets leading to very different worlds. The road to the left leads to an upscale shopping area and some Swiss banks. The road to the right cuts through a former industrial area now ruled by gangs and home to all kinds of crime, including drug dealing and prostitution.

In fact, a week before Baltz conducted a nighttime shoot of the brick-faced hotel -- which resulted in the time-lapse triptych titled Langstrasse -- Mafioso types shot each other in broad daylight. "No civilians were hit," the California-born photographer says from his home in Paris. "No one was sad to see any of them get killed."

If the sentiment sounds familiar, it's because the shooting easily could have gone down in New York City. That's the point of the eight-by-twelve-foot Langstrasse and the five other large-scale works in "Lewis Baltz: Generic Night Cities," which opens Thursday at Eaton Fine Art in West Palm Beach.

"The thing that unifies them as a group is the de facto interchangeability of modern cities," Baltz, age 53, says. "Modern Europe is very homogeneous, as is America." In his early work, Baltz took on the rampant population growth and development of Southern California and other areas of the United States. In "Night Cities" he focuses on Europe.

The sheer size of each of the two- and three-panel urban landscapes allows viewers to virtually step into the scenes from Zurich, Paris, Copenhagen, and Verona.

"It is very much about the palette of the night, and how artificial light plays against other artificial light, and how the time lapse creates a third type of artificial light," explains gallery owner Timothy Eaton. "It's somewhat hallucinatory."

In time-lapse photography the camera is set on a slow shutter speed so that signs of activity, like the trail of a car's taillight, will show up in the final print. Eaton says that, in Baltz's work, time lapse is used to express both the absence and the presence of activity.

Color is also important. The nighttime lights in Langstrasse, for example, give the work a red-orange glow that Baltz admits is seductive. Beneath the surface, however, "these are not beautiful scenes," he says of his cityscapes. "They are of very ordinary, very mass-produced, very postmodern, very postindustrial society."

If that's the case, what is a viewer supposed to take away from Blatz's works -- that human evolution is moving toward homogeneity? You won't get any answer from him. "I don't want to give it away that easily," Baltz says. "I want people to construct their own meanings."

-- John Ferri

"Lewis Baltz: Generic Night Cities," an exhibition of large-scale photographs, opens Thursday at Eaton Fine Art, 435 Gardenia St., West Palm Beach. A reception with the artist will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. The show runs through May 9. Call 561-833-4766.

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John Ferri