‘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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Showcase Portfolio: Amy Miles

Amy Miles

Goods Inwards is an observational study of how the purpose of Industrial Estates have changed and evolved over time. The work shows characteristics of the area which may be overlooked, making the viewer notice the un-noticeable. In the context of New Topographics, Baltz is significant when he posits: ‘What I was interested in was the phenomena of the place. Not the thing itself, but the effect of it: the effect of this kind of urbanization, the effect of this kind of living, the effect of this kind of building.’ (Baltz in Campany, 2015). Goods Inwards is a progression on from the intent of New Topographics – rather than looking at the immediate effects of the industrialization, it studies the effects of societal development in terms of how the area has once thrived, and now declined – maybe much like the circle of life.

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  • Amy Miles (2019) from Goods Inwards

 

Campany, D. (2015) ‘Fast World, Slow Photography’ in The Financial Times Magazine (16th May 2015) available here

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (and Friends)

for full session see: All I want for Christmas…

session overview:
  • Participants will brainstorm and list small ‘typical’ Christmas objects *use Christmas cards / adverts etc for ideas.
  • A single object could be photographed in different ways to create a typology
  • Collect the objects
  • Photograph them as neutrally as possible (using a piece black velvet as a backdrop or curved A1 card as an ‘infinity curve’)
  • Print and stick onto card. Make your accordian fold out card (of at least 3 of the objects)
suggested output: christmas accordian card
Additional activity ideas:
  • Christmas Nativity: Find Christmas themed minature models and objects. make a story / nativity and photograph it. What is its story?
  • Christmas Object: Give each participant / group one ‘Christmas’ object. What else could it be used for?

Splitting Image

The dual worlds of John Stezaker

John Stezaker (2012) Muse XII

This is an adaptable session which aims to introduce participants to the construction (or confusion) of meaning using simple / dual collage techniques. It encourages in-depth independent research into John Stezaker’s practice and its positioning within wider ideas regarding collage/montage and the nature of photographic representation.

‘Since the 1970s, the celebrated artist John Stezaker (b. 1949) has created distinctive collages using found photographs and illustrated ephemera, particularly mid twentieth-century film stills, press and publicity portraits. His minimal, but impactful interventions in these works – cutting out, slicing and splicing images – create uncanny and psychologically charged results, which challenge our ways of seeing and interpreting images’ (National Portrait Gallery, 2019)

This Session could be run in conjunction with:

John Stezaker (2007) Pair IV

Aims & Outcomes:

  • For participants to explore the construction / confusion of meaning in photographic representation.
  • For participants to consider scale, composition and juxtapositions in the construction of dual collage portraits.
  • For participants to conduct in depth research on the work of John Stezaker and apply these ideas to thier practice.
  • Participant Outcome: 3 (edited) final 6×4 digital prints

Research: the work of John Stezaker:

‘Montage is about producing something seamless and legible, whereas collage is about interrupting the seam and making something illegible’ (Stezaker in O’Hagan 2014)

You will Need:

  • An introductory brief & Presentation (below) 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
  • *If you are running this as a physical / craft session you will need: A selection of magazines, Glue, Scissors, A photocopier
  • *If you are running this as a digital session 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 the Internet, Photoshop and computers (or laptops)
  • If you are running this in conjunction with a Portait / Studio session you will need: Portraits of all participants, A booked studio, Access to the Internet, Photoshop and computers (or laptops).

Preparation work:

    • Ask participants to read John Stezaker in conversation with Sophie Cristello (2015) in The Seen available here
    • Ask participants to independently research John Stezaker’s practice and watch the video John Stezaker In Conversation (2011) for the Picture This Exhibition at Laurent Delaye Gallery available here
    • Ask participants if they have thier own digital cameras and cards
    • Make sure you have collected magazines / 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

suggested session outline:

Part 1: splitting image / dual portraits

Presentation ideas: the Neutral Portrait

part 2: splitting image / the photographed and the found

Presentation ideas: The constructed collage

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:

 

The Ordinary / Extraordinary Object

constructing the mundane object

‘To see something spectacular and recognise it as a photographic possibility is not making a very big leap. But to see something ordinary, something you’d see every day, and recognise it as a photographic possibility – that’s what I’m interested in’ (Shore in O’ Hagan, 2015)
Sian Bonnell (1999) from When the Domestic Meets the Wild

This is an adaptable session in which participants will explore the idea that through photographic construction, ordinary objects can be made extraordinary by making a scene and photographing it. It encourages participants to ‘think’ about these ordinary objects and gives a freedom to explore potential new uses of these. Participants are encouraged to explore aesthetics, lighting, framing, vantage point and depth of field, and investigate the idea of the ordinary being seen in a ‘new way’.

This Session could be run in conjunction with:

‘An ordinary object can be elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist’ (Duchamp in Obalk, 2000)

Aims & Outcomes:

  • For participants to explore the nature of the constructed image
  • For participants to work in groups to investigate different ways of ‘seeing’ a single ordinary object
  • To produce 5 (edited) constructed images which demonstrate different ways of ‘seeing’ this object
  • *This session works best when participants are in groups. Studio and location lighting may be introduced.
  • Participant Outcome: 5 x 6×4 edited Final prints

Research: Ordinary Magazine

 

Ordinary Magazine
Ordinary magazine: Issue #6 Air: Air is the general name for the mixture of gases that makes up the Earth’s atmosphere. It is the clear gas in which living things live and breathe. It has an indefinite shape and volume. It has no colour or smell. Air is a mixture of about 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 0.9% argon, 0.04% carbon dioxide, and very small amounts of other gases. There is an average of about 1% water vapour.

See the full images from Ordinary Magazine Air here

 

You will need:

  • Digital cameras for all participants (and appropriate memory cards)
  • Card readers
  • Access to computers (or laptops)
  • An introductory brief & Presentation (above / Ordinary Magazine) for participants to outline the ideas and provide examples
  • A booked room to critique participants work (either via projector or print)
  • Blu-tack if you are pinning up physical prints
  • Costings and Risk Assessments
Gabriel Orozco (1992) Breath on A Piano

Preparation work:

  • Ask participants to watch the Ordinary Magazine presentation of plastic cutlery which can be found here
  • Ask participants to bring along 3 ordinary objects to the session *Or you can bring / devise your own.
  • Ask participants if they have their own digital cameras and cards
  • Make sure you have access to computers * Decide whether you plan to project the work or print it
Felix Gonzales Torres (1992) Untitled

Suggested Session Outline: