‘New Topographics’ – George Eastman House (1975)

New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape at The George Eastman House (1975)

Visual Detachment & Political views?

By Amy Miles (16th Decemeber 2019)
‘Their stark, beautifully printed images of this mundane but oddly fascinating topography was both a reflection of the increasingly suburbanised world around them, and a reaction to the tyranny of idealised landscape photography that elevated the natural and the elemental’ (O’Hagan, 2010)
Robert Adams (1973) Mobile homes, Jefferson County, Colorado

The International Museum of Photography New Topographics (1975)  was pivotal in the development of American landscape photography. Gone were the romantic,  sublime visions of an unspoilt American frontier. Rather, the artists included in the show (Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Bernd & Hilla Becher, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore, and Henry Wessel) projected a version of America full of tract houses and industrial estates, a more anthropological, objective view of human imprint on the American land.

‘Looking at the work, what comes to the fore is the predominant spirit of the solitary road trip as a working model. The photographs evoke Evans’ American Photographs (1938) and Frank’s The Americans (1958) as much as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) and the Dennis Hopper-directed Easy Rider (1969)’ Many of the series were products of cross-country journeys, and all showed the conflict between the frontier spirit of traversing the majestic countryside and the stark reality of the pale, dank sprawl of motels, shops and houses that they encountered (Lange, 2010)

this session could be run in conjunction with:

Traditionally, the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of landscape photography, might be something similar to the work of Ansel Adams – a romantized and idealic view of the American land. However these photographers didn’t follow in these footsteps at all, and started to capture what our landscapes really looked like. The curator of New Topographics, William Jenkins, aimed to show an America from a more neutral and non-biased stance, removing the photographers specific emotions or styles. Whether or not this accurately described the artists’ intentions, in retrospect we certainly have a more politically aware view of this ‘man-altered landscape’ (Rosa, 2010). Heavily influenced by the work of Ed Ruscha (strangely not included in the show) Jenkins muses;

‘the pictures were stripped of any artistic frills and reduced to an essentially topographic state, conveying substantial amounts of visual information but eschewing entirely aspects of beauty, emotion and opinion … [this was[ rigorous purity, deadpan humor and a casual disregard for the importance of the images’ (Jenkins in Hershberger, 2013, p.236)
Ed Ruscha (1963) from 26 Gasoline Stations

Aims & Outcomes:

  • For participants to consider a history of American landscape photography and a shift to a more political approach. How are photographers influenced? Is thiss political approach inherent today? Has there been a polarisation in the way we visualise the land between vernacular and gallery contexts?
  • For participants to take a critically informed personal stance to evaluate exhibitions / works and the curatorial rationale and intent.
  • To reflect on the nature of the gallery context and questions of taste, value and judgement. Is it ‘good’?
  • Participant Outcome: To critically evaluate an exhibition of thier choice, considering curatorial intent, selection of works, and reviews. Would thier own practice fit into this and why? *Participants could also be encouraged to ‘curate’ thier own exhibition / include thier own work in this and consider the curatorial rationale.
Walker Evans was also a clear influence for this new generation of photographers. His work refused to romanticise poverty, to create perhaps a more realistic (but certainly more objective) view of the American Depression.
Walker Evans (1941) from Let Us Now Priase Famous Men

However, Evans images have been debated (e.g. Whitman, 1975, Tagg, 2003, Tedford, 2017) upon whether they were taken from a detached point of view, or whether he was sgiving his subjects dignity (if not sympathy). Frank Gohike emphasises Evans influence on his practice, most importantly, the detached viewpoint, that ‘The attempt to make a photograph from which the photographer seems to be absent is a strategy whose value and power all of us I think primarily learned from [Evans]’ (Gohlke in Salvesen, 1975, p.17).

Frank Gohlke (1975) from Grain Elevators

presentation: New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape (George Eastman House, 1975)

Robert Adams work is evidently based on this subjective relationship between man and the landscape. His work could be interpreted in a way that shows his emotional opinions towards how the landscape has changed and affected the environment.

Robert Adams (1983) On Signal Hill overlooking Long Beach, California

For example, Dennis (2005) critiqued this image as: ‘The tree in the foreground is not only dwarfed by the enormous sprawl of the city behind it, but also acts as a lone and pathetic reminder of what has been displaced by urban development.’ That said, there is still evidence of an emotional / visual detachment in the outcome. It is not implausible to suggest that the image posits an subjective position towards the ongoing march of man.

 

One might argue that the work of Lewis Baltz were taken from a similarly detached and clinical viewpoint, but yet that that the ongoing march of human development around him made he, himself, feel detached – expressed also visually (and subjectively).

Lewis Baltz (1974) from New Industrial Parks

Gosney (2013) posits this view, that ‘Lewis Baltz’s stark images juxtaposed the contrary ugliness inherant in industrial tracts and national parks…symbolising what many saw as problems of the modern age’ (Gosney, 2013). However, it must also be noted that Baltz’s images are paradoxically akin to social research.

New Topograhics exhibition in 1975 was not just the moment when the apparently banal became accepted as a legitimate photographic subject, but when a certain strand of theoretically driven photography began to permeate the wider contemporary art world. Looking back, one can see how these images of the “man-altered landscape” carried a political message and reflected, unconsciously or otherwise, the growing unease about how the natural landscape was being eroded by industrial development and the spread of cities’ (O’Hagan, 2010)

Suggested Session Outline:

  • Ask participants to conduct in depth research into the work of at least 2 of the practitoners included in the New Topographics exhibition
  • Do they have any similar reference points / visual or conceptual infuences? What are the commonalities? What are the differences? Why do you think William Jenkins curated them in the same show?
  • If you were the curator: Of the practitoners included in the show, which work would remain? And which would be rejected?
  • If you were the curator: How you adapt the show today? Are there any new works you would include? By whom and why?
  • Would you include your own photographic practice? Could you make work in this detatched yet politically present way? Of what, and why?
‘We are, perhaps, never more frustrated than when the photograph fails to tell us what it means or is about something other than what it is as a picture.’ (Dennis, 2005).
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Places with a Past

on this site: the places and spaces of joel sternfeld

‘The impulse to make a picture of an event which has already happened may seem counter-intuitive, if not impossible. Unlike a painter who may recreate a historical scene, the photographer has no such leeway’ (Albers, 2015)
Joel Sternfeld (1993) Central Park, North of the Obelisk, Behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York from On This Site: Landscape in Memoriam

This is an adaptable session which aims to introduce participants to researching the history of places and spaces and the importance of aesthetics / accompanying text / context in its photographic representation. It encourages in-depth independent research into Joel Sternfeld’s practice and its commparative positioning within wider ideas regarding different ways of photographicically representing place, space and history.

Joel Sternfeld (2001) from Walking the Highline
‘The poet-keeper of the High Line is the photographer Joel Sternfeld. He has been taking pictures of it in all seasons for the year, and he has a gift for seeing light and space and color— romantic possibility of every kind— where a less sensitive observer sees smudge and weed and ruin. He would not just like the High Line to be saved and made into a promenade; he would like the promenade as it exists now to be perpetuated, a piece of New York as it really is’ (Gopnik, 2001)

This Session could be run in conjunction with:

Aims & Outcomes:

  • To undertake research into the history of the local / a specific area
  • To explore the relationship between image and text / caption
  • To visually experiment with the loading of narrative into single / multiple images in sequence and series
  • To understand the difference between literal and ambigous imagery (and thier consequences)
  • To consider the context of viewing such images and how this might impact on thier interpretation
  • Participant Outcome: 5 6×4 digital prints
Ori Gersht (1999-2000) A Train Journey from Cracow to Auschwitz from White Noise
‘Without their subtext, they lose their specificity. The eye passes over the photograph but cannot penetrate it. There is no mental adjustment we can make that will give it clarity, except by recourse to place, circumstance and [ori gersht’s] intention’ (Searle, 2005)

You will need:

  • Digital cameras for all participants (and appropriate memory cards) *This session can also be run using Camera phones or Lumix cameras
  • Card readers
  • Access to computers (or laptops)
  • An Introductory Brief & Presentation for participants to outline the ideas and provide examples
  • Some local examples of places with a past *and preferably some visual representations of them to critique / discuss
  • A booked room to critique participants work (either via a projector (powerpoint with text) or via print)
  • Blue tack to pin the work
  • Costings and Risk Assessments
Richard Misrach (1999) Battleground Point from Desert Cantos
‘Where the document begins and where the aesthetic object begins is really hard to tell. That’s fairly obvious in my work; there doesn’t seem to be an illusion of a straight document’ (richard Misrach in Caponigro, 1998)

Research: the work of joel sternfeld

 

Preparation Work:

  • Research the history of a local / specific area *local libraries, newspapers and people living in the area can help here
  • Ask participants to read Kate Palmer Albers (2015) ‘Joel Sternfeld’s Empty Places available here
  • Ask participants to read Fiona McDonald (2014) ‘Thomas Demand: Making History – with paper’ in BBC Culture available here
  • Ask participants to watch the video On This Site by Joel Sternfeld (2014) available here
  • Ask participants if they have thier own digital cameras and cards
  • Make sure you have access to computers / image editing software
  • Make sure there are enough team members to support participants (never assume thier prior knowledge)
  • Decide whether you will project the work or print it.
  • If you are printing it make sure the Photo Lab are aware and be aware of timekeeping so they have space to print the work.
  • *If you are running this session off campus, make sure there is access to printers (or projectors if you are concentrating on sequencing a narrative only – create a powerpoint and include the text with each photograph)
Catherine Yass (2013) from Decommissioned
‘Catherine Yass photographed the former car showroom and dance studios that used to stand on the JW3 site once they had been decommissioned and emptied. The resulting large-format transparencies were placed around the demolition site – on diggers, under girders, in piles of glass and rubble – and then retrieved some weeks later, after they had been damaged scratched, ripped, and transformed by colour reactions on the emulsion. The images have been placed in the new building in light boxes and are in Yass’ words “small windows into a past and interior world illuminated by imagination and memory’ (outset, 2013)

Presentation Ideas: places with a past

Suggested Session Outline:

to come

Abigail Reynolds (2015) Desert Seeds
‘Making work is a strange and erratic dance of intuition, graft, brute materiality and opportunism. I allow myself to be attracted to certain images, forms and places which then become points to work away from. For me, making work is partly aversion and partly attraction. I enjoy to play with my sense of surroundings and also materiality. I also enjoy the difficulty of sculpture and the challenge of problem solving, which is always present when making anything three dimensional’ (Abigail Reynolds in Aesthetica, 2013)

 

Neutral Vision (s)

Typologies & Types: Faces, Spaces, Places

‘Throughout the modern era, photography has been enlisted to classify the world and its people. Driven by a belief in the scientific objectivity of photographic evidence, the logics utilized to classify photographs-in groups and categories or sequences of identically organized images-also shape our visual consciousness’ (Baker, 2015)
Sophie Calle (1981) from The Hotel

This is an adaptable session which encourages participants to consider a potential neutrality and objectivity of photographic vision. Through the construction of a typology, it encourages participants to also think about the nature of comparative and investigative viewing (whether the subject matter is face, places or spaces).

 

‘I am an eye. A mechanical eye. I, the machine, show you a world the way only I can see it. My way leads towards a fresh perception of the world. Thus, I explain in a new way the world unknown to you’ (Vertov in Berger, 1972, p.17)

This Session could be run in conjunction with:

Andy Warhol (1962) Campbell’s Soup Cans

Aims & Outcomes:

  • For participants to explore the aesthetic implications of a ‘neutral’ view. Can photographs ever be objective?
  • For participants to visually consider how typologies work. Do they encourage investigative viewing? Can they transform the banal?
  • Participant Outcome: 4 (edited) 6×4 digital prints per approach (Faces / Spaces / Places)
‘For the first time an image of the world is formed automatically without the creative intervention of man. The personality of the photographer enters into proceedings only in his selection of the object to be photographed and by way of the purpose he has in mind’
(Bazin (1967) in Trachtenberg, 1980, p.241)
Jochen Lempert (1993-2016) The Skins of Alca impennis

You will need:

  • Digital cameras for all participants (and appropriate memory cards) *This session can also be run using Camera phones or Lumix cameras
  • Card readers
  • Access to computers (or laptops)
  • An introductory brief & presentation for participants to outline the ideas and provide examples
  • A booked room to critique participants work (either via a projector or via print)
  • Blue tack to pin the work
  • Costings and Risk Assessments
Bernd & Hilla Becher (1966-1997) from Winding Towers

 

‘This is a requiem for a lost world and shows that, through the passing of time, even that which was once considered purely functional and even ugly, can attain beauty when seen through the eyes of the most attentive photographers’ (O’Hagan, 2014)

 

 

Presentation ideas: constructing typologies:

Faces:
Spaces:
places:

Preparation Work:

    • Ask participants to read Sean O’Hagan (2014) ‘Lost world: Bernd and Hilla Becher’s legendary industrial photographs’ in The Guardian 3rd September 2014 available here
    • Ask participants to watch Francis Hodgson (2011) Thomas Struth – An Objective Photographer? In The Financial Times available here
    • Ask participants if they have thier own digital cameras and cards
    • Make sure you have access to computers
    • Make sure there are enough team members to support participants (never assume thier prior knowledge)
    • Decide whether you will project the work or print it.
    • If you are printing it (6×4) make sure the Photo Lab are aware and be aware of timekeeping so they have space to print the work.
    • *If you are running this session off campus, make sure there is access to printers or projectors
Tim Flach (2014) for The Sunday Times

suggested Session Outline: