Those who spend their caffeine-fueled dawns and beer-thirsting dusks swaying along the New York MTA subway organs are no doubt familiar with the quote, “History is like that, very chancy,” from the intrepid Samuel Eliot Morison, he of the Trains of Thought ad series lining train interiors. Which is a roundabout way to introduce that unlikely touchstone in the history of photography, the now seminal (gender appropriate) exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man Altered Landscape that opened in 1975 at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. Featuring Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore, and Henry Wessel, the exhibition became the brand name for a full-blown genre of photographic investigation.
Twenty-four years later, the exhibition is being recreated, and curators Britt Salvesen of the Center for Creative Photography and Alison Nordstrom of George Eastman House clearly have an art historical ax to grind. The press release is full of lofty prose and direct rhetoric. A selection of excerpts:
Arguably the last traditionally photographic style, New Topographics was also the first photoconceptual style…
As evidence of its influence, it is considered the second most-cited photography exhibition in the history of the medium… (Aside: What’s the first? Family of Man? Update: Upon further consideration, probably New Documents.)
The influence of New Topographics can be traced by looking again at the original pictures and at the circumstances in which the 10 artists were brought together. At the core of this re-examination will be the works from the 1975 show, which was curated by William Jenkins in collaboration with the artists. Jenkins’s concept achieved currency primarily through the exhibition catalogue (which today is being sold at rare-book sales for upwards of $1,000, far beyond its original $6.95 price tag). “By revisiting the photographs, we can assess their cumulative effect and consider their impact as objects,” Salvesen said. “This reprise also provides a unique opportunity to assess the original exhibition’s aims, consider its influence on young photographers today, and examine the international implications of an American impulse in photography.”
This presentation of New Topographics will also include prints and books by other relevant artists to provide additional historical and contemporary context. Timothy O’Sullivan appears in his role as a 19th-century precursor cited by both Adams and Baltz, while Walker Evans illustrates the idea of “documentary style” that he introduced to American photography in the 1930s. The conceptual aspect of New Topographics is illuminated by the photo-based books of Ed Ruscha, a key figure in Jenkins’s catalogue essay; Robert Smithson’s Instamatic snapshots of defiantly anti-monumental sites; and Dan Graham’s magazine layout/slide show Homes for America; and the groundbreaking 1972 study Learning from Las Vegas, by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour.
In the coming weeks and months I hope to examine many of the topics and concerns that the exhibition raises, including the following:
- What is at stake in “re-creating” an exhibition? How might this be compared to the revival of the theatrical play or dance? In other words what are the temporal dimensions proposed by an exhibition as a specific time and place, and what does the contemporary viewer then bring to the re-creation?
- What relationship can we decipher between the “style” of the New Topographics and the “artists using photography” of Conceptualism? Text to revisit: Jeff Wall’s “Marks of Indifference.”
- Was New Topographics truly a paradigm shift, a full aesthetic break, or rather a form of atavism to the land surveys of a century before? in which case, what are the power dynamics implicit in the photographic “critiques” and strategies of refusal employed by the Topographic photographers? In other words, what are the politics of style at work? In this regard I will consider Jenkins’s original catalogue essay as well as the writings of artists included in the exhibition.
- What might is the influence of New Topographics today? How might we identify another generation of artists expanding upon the legacy of that exhibition. In particular can we expand the horizons to include greater diversity in gender and topography? How might globalization be considered to affect this aesthetic condition? What is a “Man-Altered Landscape” in the 21st Century?
My interest in New Topographics is largely personal. Raised in the West, I was imbued with a certain reverence for the natural world, but a Romanticism leavened by pragmatism and eventually cynicism. My own journey through photography retraced the steps of many of the Topographic photographers, rejecting the sublime landscapes that came before me, the equivalences and transcendentalisms that defined American photography for at least half a century. Even as I no longer make pictures of my own, I certainly see photographs as codifications of social values. No image is innocent or blank: they each belie a world of biases and valuations. In framing the world they saw developing before them, the Topographic photographers gave form to ideas they had about the landscapes they lived in. Landscape, as a physical thing in a world, but more particularly through their aesthetic representation, tell us a great deal about who we are.
In the interests of full disclosure, outside of this blog I have professional relationships with several of the photographers in the exhibition; I hope that if anything this will clarify and illuminate certain ideas rather than cloud them–my intentions certainly aren’t promotional in this setting.
I’ve laid the groundwork with a lot of questions that have been stirring in my head over the past months since I learned about the forthcoming exhibition. New Topographics will be touring for the next three years, so this may be a discussion that comes and goes. The publication is slated to arrive in September.
George Eastman House (June 13–Oct. 4,2009); Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Oct. 25, 2009–Jan. 3, 2010); Center for Creative Photography (Feb. 19–May 16, 2010); San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (July 17–Oct. 3, 2010); Landesgalerie Linz, Austria (Nov. 10, 2010–Jan. 9, 2011), Photographische Sammlung Stiftung Kultur, Cologne (Jan. 27–April 3, 2011); Jeu de Paume, Paris (April 11–June 12, 2011); and the Nederlands Fotomuseum Rotterdam, the Netherlands (July 2–Sept. 11, 2011); and Bilbao Fine Arts Museum, Bilbao (November 2011–January 2012).