‘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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Doug Rickard’s ‘Pictures’?

America according to doug Rickard 

By Emily Jane Scott (13th December 2019)
‘(Photography) promises a view of the world, but it gives us a flattened object in which wrecked reminders of the world are logged’ (Elkins, 2011, p.17)
Doug Rickard (2011) from A New American Picture

Doug Rickard produced his series A New American Picture, by utilising the vast visual archive of Google Street View. He iimportantly reminds us to challenge preconceptions about what photography, or ‘photographies’ can be, especially when it comes to digital imagery. Rickard spent an extensive amount of time (2009-2011) exploring stereotypically ‘subordinate’ urban neighbourhoods and rural areas across the USA, from the comfort of his own computer desk. He would then photograph the composition on his computer screen with a digital SLR. Whilst many photographers aim for the most transparent process possible, Rickard includes blurred faces, pixelated distortion and warped perspective which reveal the digital origin of his photographs.

Doug Rickard (2011) from A New American Picture
Perhaps Rickard’s process reflects the beginning of an age where human beings are reduced to data, constantly being observed, being monitored?

Yet, paradoxically, Rickard returns humanity to this data by picking out individual stories and adding them to the overarching and ongoing narrative of the American working class. The sense of distance provided by Rickard’s multi-layered technique adds weight to the images- reminding us of how distant we might be from these people and places; both on a geographical, cultural and socio-economic level. And so, Rickard is no more of a visual appropriator than any more ‘traditional’ photographer: he is simply photographing from within a digitally reconstructed environment, as opposed to the world outside. The images included in A New American Picture only became photographs (dare we say ‘art’?) once they were selected, framed, curated, contextualised and published by Rickard.

‘Doug Rickard… is interested in the American content and its haunting, visceral power. “I was interested in photographing America in the same context, with the same poetry and power, that has been done in the past” (in Appleyard, 2011)
Doug Rickard (2011) from A New American Picture
Rickard’s work blurs the lines between technology and reality, the image and the world around us. His practice challenges our view of what photography is, and could be in this new, digital age.

Although Rickard is drawing from a collection of images which have already been ‘taken’, His practice, to me, cannot be considered to be a ‘pure’ form of artistic appropriation (despite appropriation being a completely valid way of producing powerful work, which can eloquently distil a cultural mood). The original mages within Google Street View are not, in my opinion, photographs. They were objectively, methodically collected by a vehicle-mounted camera driven down every street; they have no nature of subjective selection.

Rickard is no more a visual hunter-gatherer than any photographer. he is simply photographing from within a digitally reconstructed environment, as opposed to the world outside which is, itself, layered with constructed imagery.

Szarkowski’s (1966) discussion of photography focuses on the idea of selection. A photographer chooses what to include within a frame, and what to leave out. It is impossible for the ‘photographer’ to be truly objective, as a truly objective image is not a photograph, it is only visual data. so where does that leave Rickard, or indeed, his source material? A New American Picture only became subjective photographs once they were selected, framed, curated, contextualised. One might even liken his work to that of a ‘readymade’ sculptor; he turns something completely banal and utilitarian into a different practice merely through recontextualization. But yet paradoxically, despite its source material, we should still frame this practice in the tradition of Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, Paul Graham – or even Edward Hopper, as an equally visual / critical and subjective commentary on the state of thier own America.

Doug Rickard (2011) from A New American Picture
‘Any doubts as to the artistic – rather than ethical or conceptual – merits of this new way of working were definitively settled by Rickard’s pictures. It was William Eggleston who coined the phrase “photographing democratically” but Rickard has used Google’s indiscriminate omniscience to radically extend this enterprise – technologically, politically and aesthetically’ (Dyer, 2012)

The idea of photography as an accurate representation of the real world is mythological. Whether it be an artist’s concept, a news story, a memory, an advertisement, an illustration or investigation, all photographs feed into a false narrative of some kind. Yet, Rickards photographs are aesthetically pleasing, insightful, emotive and harrowing. The sense of distance provided by his multi-layered technique adds weight to the images, reminding one of how distant we really might be from these people and places, on geographical, cultural and socio-economic levels.

Doug Rickard (2011) from A New American Picture
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A Walk on The Wild Side

(timed) Travels with a Camera

‘We cannot claim to have really seen anything before having photographed it’ (Zola in Sontag, 1977, p.87)
Todd Hido (2016) from Bright Black World

This session encourages participants to ‘notice’ the world around them, as well as ‘seeing’ it in individual / subjective and  photographic terms. Through a single walk / trip (with timed alarms for photographing) it encourages participants to notice the world around them, explore the role of aesthetics, framing, vantage point and depth of field, and investigate the idea of a more subjective ‘photographic’ voice as the ‘group’ walk / experience of the world is transformed / constructed into an individual and subjective vision.

Photographs substitute for direct encounter; they act as surrogates, mediating that which was seen through the camera viewfinder’ (Wells, 2011, p.6)

This session could be run in conjuction with:

Hamish Fulton (1985) Wind through the Pines

Aims & Outcomes:

  • For participants to notice the world around them in a subjective manner and explore the nature of a ‘photographic’ way of seeing and framing the world. Are you merely photographing? Are you constructing? Are captions / text important?
  • For participants to consider the ‘intent’ of thier work: What are you ‘saying’ about the world around you?
  • For participants to conduct in depth research on the work of Robert Frank and apply these ideas to thier practice
  • Participant Outcome: 5 6×4 digital prints

Research: The Work of Robert Frank

‘Robert Frank…he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world’ (Jack Kerouac in Petrusich, 2019)
‘Seeing THE AMERICANS in a college bookshop was a stunning, ground-trembling experience for me. But I realized this man’s achievement could not be mined or imitated in any way, because he had already done it, sewn it up and gone home. What I was left with was the vapors of his talent. I had to make my own kind of art’ (Ed Ruscha in Casper, 2019)

You will need:

  • A planned / dedicated walk of a local area (with printed maps)
  • A planned study visit / school trip to a designated location (with printed maps)
  • Timers (egg timers or phone alarms will suffice) for timing of when participants will make thier photographs on the ‘walk’
  • You need to decide whether participants will photograph all at the same time / in small groups / individually
  • Digital cameras for all participants (and appropriate memory cards) *This session can also be run using analogue cameras, Camera phones, Lumix cameras
  • Card readers
  • Access to computers (or laptops)
  • 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 Assessment
Uta Kögelsberger (2007) from Getting Lost

Preparation Work:

  • To design your walk / trip and provide maps. Walk the area yourself in preparation and note the times / any interesting features
  • Create a Google Map of your walk.
  • To identify alarm timings for participants taking photographs (either all together / in small groups / on thier own)
  • Ask participants to read Jelani Cobb (2019) ‘How Robert Frank’s Photographs Helped Define America’ in The New York Times (11th September 2019) available here
  • Ask participants to investigate the nature of the ‘road trip’ and watch the Aperture Foundation video The Open Road: Photography and the American Road Trip (2014) available here
  • Ask participants to independently research the work of Robert Frank
  • 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

Presentation Ideas: Travels with a Camera

Suggested Session Outline:

  • Introduce the session / walk and the importance of really looking at the world around them, considering what they are trying to say about the object / scene / person etc and consider scale, composition, angle, vantage point, depth of field, etc
  • Give the presentation Travels with a Camera (or devise your own) to introduce particpants to the idea of photographing on a journey etc.
  • Ask participants to set thier alarms to go off every 5 minutes (if you want them all to photograph from the same point) / provide individual times (if you want them to photograph at different times along the walk)
  • Walk / photograph – give examples of what you might do and again remind participants of visual variety / typology etc.
  • Make a note of location on the map every time you photograph. You might use Google Maps here
  • Upload / edit / print photographs
  • Project the Google Map on the wall (large) and pin up / scan and insert the photographs at the locaitons in with they were taken
  • Critique / discuss
  • Photograph / save the projection of the map with the images on – you could print at 12×16 for each participant.
Mads Gamdrup (2002) from Renunciation

 

The Unseen & Overlooked

‘Seeing’ the mundane & banal

‘There is no such thing as an un-photographed or un-photographable subject. It is for us to determine a subjects significance, knowing it must have one, for the artist has photographed it and thereby designated it as significant.’ (Cotton, 2014, p.115)
Rinko Kawauchi (2001) from Utatane

This is an adaptable session in which participants will explore the idea that banal/mundane subject matter can be made extraordinary merely by the act of photographing it. It encourages participants to ‘look’ at the world around them, explore the role of aesthetics, framing, vantage point and depth of field, and investigate the idea of ‘photographic seeing’ as the world is transformed / constructed into an image.

‘To photograph is to confer importance. There is probably no subject that cannot be beautified; moreover, there is no way to suppress the tendency inherent in all photographs to accord value to their subjects’ (Sontag, 1977, p.28)

This Session could be run in conjunction with:

Gus Van Sant (2004) film still from Elephant
‘The Fact that the banal image points towards its own status as object suggests that the aesthetics of the banal be approached not just in terms of what we read in the image, but of how we read it.’ (Shinkle, 2004, p.175)

Aims & Outcomes:

  • For participants to visually explore the nature of a ‘photographic’ way of seeing and framing the world around them
  • For participants to produce 5 (edited) images which visually / aesthetically transform and change the objects / scenes they have photographed
  • For participants to conduct in depth research on the work of Peter Fraser and apply these ideas to thier practice.
  • *This session works best when participants are encouraged to really ‘look’ at the world around them rather than construct or interfere with the scene.
  • Participant Outcome: 5 6×4 digital prints

Research: the work of Peter fraser:

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 (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

Presentation ideas: Looking at the overlooked

Preparation work:

  • Ask participants to watch the Peter Fraser (2013) Tate Shots interview which can be accessed 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

Suggested Session Outline:

  • Ask participants what they think most boring objects / scenes they can think of.
  • Deliver presentation / brief and encourage discussion and debate
  • In small groups investigate the local area and encourage visual exploration of banaal objects and scenes
  • Encourage participants not to interfere with the object / scene but to try to show it in a ‘new way’ through the act of photographing it.
  • Download and edit final images (5 per participant) *have a break here to give good time to print these physically or organise a slideshow
  • Critique and feedback with the group