Tuesday, February 26, 2013

New Topographics : Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape

Who would have guessed in the mid 70’s that a photographic exhibition could change the history of photgraphy? At that time photography was still considered a "fin-arts", characterized  by aestheticising pictures of dramatic landscapes. It was therefore against the flow that William Jenkins formed in 1975 the exhibition New Topographics. 168 pictures from 8 different American photographers (Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore and Henry Wessel Jr.) and the German couple Bernd and Hilla Becher were shown in George Eastman House in Rochester, home city of Kodak. The common interest of all these arstists was their interest in a documentary style, represented so far by Walker Evans’ work. 

All the prints, in black and white format (except for Shore’s work), show some urban situations from 70’s american cities. They all focus on landscapes, but landscapes without special "quality", far from the typical aesthetic criteria of beauty. They highlight common places of suburbia with their industrial sites, parking lots and dusty motels. When assembled, they present a certain face of the contemporary American society. That documentary style is greatly assisted by a certain neutrality of the prints, free from any style effect. The photographer’s presence seems here to disappear, not to alter the information taken. In that way, some pictures seem to be made mechanically, as a first precursor to the technologies invented thirty years later as in Google street view system.

Lewis Baltz,  Jamboree Road Between Beckman and Richter Avenues, Looking Northwest, 1974

But as his subtitle Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape may suggest, New Topographics can be seen also as a first draft of criticism on the development of big American cities. Although ecology was far from being a societal issue at this time, Shore’s shots of empty and anonymous huge streets where pedestrians seem to be intruders, or Adams’ pictures of aligned mobile-home districts, standardized and pretty inhospitable might appear as a questioning about the inhuman extension of suburbs. In this particular print, landscape in the background is not only altered, but inevitably colonized by human actions.

Stephen Shore, Second Street and South Main Street, Kalispell,, Montana, 1974

Robert Adams, Mobile Homes, Jefferson County, Colorado, 1973

Bernd and Hilla Becher’s work is also part of the exhibition. They took pictures with the same documentary style of numerous industrial structures such as salt mines, creating a sort of architectural directory. The result is a series of prints, dramatic and fascinating in terms of their level of detail. What is considered by society as the ugliest part of man-made construction is elevated here as an art subject, to be as beautiful and interesting as any natural landscape. 

Bernd and Hilla Becher, Preparation Plant, Harry E. Colliery Coal Breaker, Wiles Barre, Pennsylvania, USA, 1974

New Topographics is first of all a highlighting of the banal, aestheticized in every picture. Looking back, the pictures can be seen as well as a political critique of the way cities developed in thqt period.

It is interesting to notice that the first exhibition held in George Eastman House wasn’t really succesfull, critics underlined the ugliness of the subject chosen by the artists. Nevertheless, New Topographics elevated the status of photography from fine-art to a contemporary art, and still influences a lot of current photographers such as Andreas Gurski. Collected in a book with the same name, New Topographics exhibition is still shown today, compiling about 100 of the 168 original pictures.