Saturday, March 16, 2013

Revisiting the New Topography

Robert Adams, Tract Housing, North Glenn and Thornton, Colorado, 1973

Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Bernd & Hilla Becher, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore, Henry Wessel Jr.

New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-altered Landscape was an exhibition originally held in 1975 at George Eastman House, Rochester, New York. Despite being seen by a relatively small audience, and having a very limited catalogue run, this exhibition has come to be recognised as seminal in redefining landscape photography. The exhibition was revived, toured again in 2009-2011, and a new catalogue was released, bringing renewed attention to its importance and influence.

Britt Salvesen has noted in her catalogue essay that, “we can see New Topographics as a bridge between the still-insular fine-art photography world and the expanding post-conceptual field of contemporary art, simultaneously asserting and deconstructing the medium’s modernist specificity, authority and autonomy” (1). All the artists involved in New Topographics were from what was a relatively small photography scene, and had some connection with George Eastman House, or with each other as fellow artists, students and academics. William Jenkins, curator of the 1975 exhibition, originally discussed with Joe Deal the idea for the exhibition as a show about architecture. This idea developed into a realisation that what they were looking at putting together was “primarily about landscape”(2). Deal’s own work evolved
in the lead up to the show to include less subjective detail and more of the surrounding environment.

Joe Deal, Untitled View (Albuquerque), 1974
Joe Deal, Untitled View (Albuquerque), 1974

The by-line in the title signals the shift in focus that this exhibition marked — a move from the idea of the pristine landscape and glorification of the natural wonder, as epitomised by Ansel Adams or the landscape images of Edward Weston — to the everyday reality of the landscape in which people actually dwell. The mundane and the banal in photography had already been seen with the snapshot aesthetic which had existed in photography since cameras became widely accessible, and was mimicked in the 60s by photographers like Garry Winogrand, and Lee Friedlander and brought to prominence by John Szarkowski. The works in this exhibition shift their focus to the banal and mundane environment — bringing to the man-made world the same photographic attention the natural world received. Another nod to the snapshot, and a further step away from previous landscape photography, is Steven Shore's work the only colour photographs included in the show.
At the time the images were seen as confronting as there is no obvious beauty or narrative to hold onto. The work of Lewis Baltz is especially true of this, as he photographs the blank walls of industrial buildings, generic architecture and construction sites.

Steven Shore, Wilde Street and Colonization Avenue, Dryden, Ontario, August 15, 1974

Lewis Baltz, South Corner, Riccar America Company, 3184 Pullman, Costa Mesa, 1974

Lewis Baltz, Foundation Construction, Many Warehouses, 2891 Kelvin, Irvine, 1974

Lewis Baltz, North Wall, Semicoa, 333 McCormick, Costa Mesa, 1974

Similarly, Frank Gohlke frames some of his images with the foreground object centralised and background disarmingly split across both sides of the image, or have large expanses of ‘empty’ foreground. This framing is similarly unconventional to that adopted in the snapshot aesthetic. Gohlke’s images are also all provocatively titled Landscape, followed by their location. 

Frank Gohlke, Landscape Los Angeles, 1974
Frank Gohlke, Landscape Los Angeles, 1974

Nicholas Nixon, Buildings on Tremont Street, Boston, 1975

The general demeanour of the exhibition is that the photographers have just photographed what is there — as it is. A number of the artists cite Walker Evans and his ‘Documentary Style’ as an influence on this detached approach(3), which aims to withhold judgement and present the landscapes as found. Many of the works included are shot from a fairly natural eye height, or views from hills and other buildings, giving the sense of being present in the location. A notable exception is the typologies work of the Bechers - which is shot from a higher vantage point, but still gives a sense of a kind of objective eye which is looking at the industrial specimens without attachment.

Bernd, and Hilla Becher, Pit Head, Bear Valley, Pennsylvania, USA, 1974

The influence of New Topographics is particularly evidenced in the way that the term itself transformed from simply being the title of the exhibition to a description of a particular attitude or style, a concept which implies a social conscience, and a term then appropriated for further exhibitions.(4) It is only in retrospect that the latter conceptual framework has been attached to the exhibition, and now themes of land use, environmentalism and urban sprawl are commonly also cited, despite these not being present in the original curatorial intention. This is perhaps the consequence of critical theory and postmodernism’s tendency toward contextualisation as a means of understanding, and the growth of academia into new territory. Edward Relph’s Place and Placelessness was only released the following year, and academia began turning its attention to the study of the urban environment as a subject in itself.

Since 1975, further fields of urban theory have emerged, along with an increasing social consciousness of the environment — and it is easy to look back on this exhibition and see it as a harbinger of this new perspective, even if it wasn’t aware of this at the time. Photography itself during this same time also increasingly became seen as a valid source through which social concerns are manifest.

(1) B. Salvesen, “New Topographics” in New Topographics. (2nd. ed), (Göttingen, Germany: Steidl Publishers, 2010), 12. 
(2) B. Salvesen, “New Topographics” in New Topographics. (2nd. ed), 18. 
(3) B. Salvesen, “New Topographics” in New Topographics. (2nd. ed), 17. Gohlke, Nixon, Schott and Shore are all quoted as influenced by Walker Evans.
(4) See discussion in A. Nordström, “After New: Thinking about New Topographics from 1975 to the Present” in New Topographics. (2nd. ed), 69-79.