[26Dec21] The 1975 exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a
Man-Altered Landscape had a major impact on the future direction of landscape photography. The work featured was from
Lewis Baltz, the Bechers,
Stephen Shore and
Henry Wessel Jr.
There's no-one I haven't heard of there, but only three have yet been documented - the Bechers (count as one), Shore and Wessel. The remaining six will be documented by the end of this segment, either directly, arising from the cmat. or by choice.
Andy Grundberg (2021, pp.108-9) says of the exhibition,
The show was life altering, at least for me. I had seen some of the ten photographers' work before-Stephen Shore and Frank Gohlke shared the walls at the beginning of the year at Light Gallery, Robert Adams and Henry Wessel Jr. were favourites of John Szarkowski's at MoMA, and Bernd and Hilla Becher had been shown there and at Sonnabend - but having their work together in one large gallery made their similarities strikingly apparent. The word trend is perhaps too debased to use, but the exhibition definitely altered the way photographers thought about their mission.
Beyond the exquisite clarity and descriptiveness of the prints, the most remarked-on quality of the work in the show was its apparent strident objectivity, or seeming emotional neutrality, a result of using the camera straightforwardly at a middle or far distance from the subject. This of course was an illusion; some photographers felt strongly about the intrusions of human occupation and others cared deeply about preserving evidence of an earlier era. Nicholas Nixon's statement, quoted by Jenkins in the show's slim catalogue, is often invoked to characterize what new topographics meant as a style: "The world is infinitely more interesting than any of my opinions of it."
Grundberg, 2021, pp.108-9
Sean O'Hagan wrote about the show in The Guardian in 2010, 35 years after the original and a year after it was restaged in LA,
It is 35 years since the term "new topographics" was coined by William Jenkins, curator of a group show of American landscape photography held at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. The show consisted of 168 rigorously formal, black-and-white prints of streets, warehouses, city centres, industrial sites and suburban houses. Taken collectively, they seemed to posit an aesthetic of the banal.
"What I remember most clearly was that nobody liked it," Frank Gohlke, one of the participating photographers told the LA Times when the exhibition was restaged last year at the LA County Museum of Art. "I think it wouldn't be too strong to say that it was a vigorously hated show."
The New Topographics 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.
The cmat. notes its groundbreaking contents and unpopularity and comments, "the contributors to New Topographics very much intended their photographs for a gallery audience", picking up on Grundberg and O'Hagan's points that it marked a sea change in photography - artification.
Although O'Hagan (ibid.) suggests, "[the] New Topographics exhibition in 1975 was not just the moment when the apparently banal became accepted as a legitimate photographic subject", and the cmat. that "[the] exhibition subverted traditional notions of landscape photography, in the vein of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston" (LPE p.74) few aesthetic innovations are without precedent. Grudberg, writing in 1986 for the Edward Weston centenary stated,
[Weston's] late work, which consists in large measure of landscapes, also contains evidence of a political consciousness absent in Weston's earlier photography … In the last ten years of his working life, Weston perceived the American landscape not as something grand, primordial, and innocent, but as inhabited, acculturated and, in many places, despoiled. Not only do many of his pictures from this era recall Walker Evans's photography of the 1930s, but they also point directly to the socially conscious but stylistically restrained "New Topographic" mode of landscape photography of the last ten years, by photographers such as Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke and Stephen Shore. One need only compare Weston's image of a coffee cup sign in the Mojave Desert (titled Siberia in California and the West the published collection of his Guggenheim work) with a picture like Robert Adams's On Top of Flagstaff Mountain, Boulder County, Colorado, reproduced in From the Missouri West, which shows a trash can in the foreground of an otherwise scenic vista, to sense how much Weston's vision had veered from its earlier high modernist trajectory.
Grundberg, 1999, pp.25-6
I struggled to find the Adams image and I'm still not sure from Grundberg's description of "a trash can in the foreground of an otherwise scenic vista" and I'm still not sure I have it — I envisaged a receptacle large enough in view to read the council's sign on the side (thinking in parochial London Borough terms. What I have found is a (to me) bizarre YouTube video of Photo Book Guy turning each page: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U7UK6vIlOi4 I must conclude that this is not unusual.
Fig. A2 is what might be the image in question (although it's not from a mountain top so I am now having my doubts), fig. A3 is in a similar vein, a drink bottle standing by a large rock on a prairie (presumably no Adams' bottle).
b: 1945 Newport Beach, CA.
d: 2014 Paris ICP - Wikipedia
David Campany interviews Baltz in So present, so invisible (2018, pp.68-89). At the age of 12, Baltz "wanted to be Edward Weston", although he describes him as "a bit of a bullshitter" (p.70). As a teenager he often visited Carmel at weekends to photograph and met Wynn Bullock, William Current (an early mentor), Brett Weson and Ansel Adams, describing the latter as "a real businessman and a total charlatan", although this is not explained.
Baltz was brought up in less attractive surroundings and witnessed postwar architectural development standards that informed a project discussed at length, The New Industrial Parks near Irvine, California, 1974. Baltz describes his home as "a small suburban town built around a rich man's boat harbour" (pp.72-73) and how, when he graduated in 1969, the status quo was "being shoved down your throat" and he sought, through his photographs, "a way of shoving back" (p.73).
He photographed industrial parks "through most of 1973 and going back three or four years" (p.77). The project comprised 51 images, 3 rows of 17 and Baltz always intended them to be both an exhibition and a book (pp. 78-79).
Asked who were his influences at the time, Baltz replies Robert Adams and especially the Bechers, whose work he saw in exhibition at the Sonnabend gallery and he regarded as validating his own work, whereas previously he had "felt like a minority of one - a mad man, who nobody gives a shit about, producing work nobody wanted to engage with" (p.79.)
Campany prompts, "within a year you and Adams, the Bechers and six other American photographers are all curated together by William Jenkins in the "New Topographies" show" (p.79): Baltz describes this as "a moment of perfect confluence" (p.79).
Baltz continues, "nobody came to see it or review it. They finally invited a critic up from Art in America. He stayed for a week, looked at the show, and then wrote a good, intelligent review. That seemed to be the end of it. The exhibition did go on to the Otis Art Institute Art Gallery in Los Angeles, and then to the art museum at Princeton. When that ended nothing more was heard about it. A few people even started talking about a "backlash" against the show. I never got that. I mean, how can you have a backlash when you never even had a frontlash? But anyway, things went quiet again until the mid-1980s when Jonathan Green wrote a book on American photography and called it the single most influential photography exhibition of all time. I have to say I was incredibly happy about that, but also totally astonished" (p.80). This section of the interview closes with
Campany: "I think it gets caught up with a certain kind of art history that's always looking for landmarks rather than precedents."
Baltz: :"It's also a reflection of an art world that has thrived on movements, most of which have been named by their enemies. So if it was just Stephen Shore and Robert Adams, then that's interesting, but if we put them and the Bechers and Baltz and Wessel and] Joe Deal together, then it becomes a movement and people will pay more attention. And they did."
On his subsequent work, Campany prompts, "Having got into the medium at 11 through Edward Weston, and with your very obvious affection for photography, there comes a point in the mid-1970s when like a lot of others you're saying, 'I'm not a photographer'" and Baltz replies,
"Are we talking about photography, or are we talking about the world of photography and its history and its historians, its networks, its personalities, its gods ... because I don't credit any of that. I think as a medium it's brilliant. And it's brilliant because of the simplest things that it does, and does well."
The Bechers were the only non-Americans in the show. They featured their standard grid typology of US subject matter SFMoMA, who restaged the show in 2010. Their web page on the event shows six low-resolution copies of the images displayed, including one from the Bechers.
The cmat. says of Bechers' work,
[their] typologies stand for deeper concerns about the essence of photography, particularly about ideas relating to the medium and its practitioners as collectors – gathering, arranging and archiving visual information about the world.
Grundberg describes their display methodology,
For MoMA's 1970 Information show, the Bechers presented forty photographs of cooling towers, along with a schematic drawing and a text panel. For their first appearances at Sonnabend Gallery in New York, starting in 1972, the prints were trimmed and mounted on large boards within single frames; later in the decade they framed the pictures individually but hung them together as a grid on the wall.
Grundberg, 2021, p.
and quotes a description of their approach from sculptor Carl Andre in Artforum, December 1972,
The art of the Bechers has levels of meaning and reference, but all
of them are distinct and apparent. It is an art (photography) dealing
with a subject matter that is itself an art (architecture), using
a system of morphology and typology that is well-established in
formalist art history, in terms of a recognizable artistic attitude
Carl Andre in Grundberg, 2021, p.
Copies of Britt Salvesen New Topographics
for sale on Abebooks 28 Dec 21
Note - there is a PDF of Britt Salvesen's essay on New Topographics here, or Abebooks have two copies on sale, both priced at over £900 (fig. D1). Regarding the exhibition's title, Salvesen writes,
Deal recalls that Sobieszek had installed a display case at Eastman House containing stereographs, postcards, and other popular nineteenth-century landscape and travel imagery under the rubric "Topographic Photography."152 Along with that photohistorical tradition, Deal and Jenkins recognized the word's association with maps. As the latter explained in his catalogue essay:
"The word topography is in general use today in connection with the making of maps or with land as described by maps and it does not stretch the imagination to see all photographs as maps of a sort. But for the sake of clarity a return to the original meaning may be helpful: "The detailed and accurate description of a particular place, city, town, district, state, parish or tract of land."
Salvesen, New Topographics, 2010, p.39-40
Salvesen, B. (2010) New Topographics . Göttingen: Steidl & Partners.
The Campany essay was written for the Tate exhibition Cruel and Tender (2003) which largely comprised "straight photography" (Tate, 2003): Campany describes straight photography as "clear, frontal and rectilinear" (Campany, 2003). The other major aspect of the show was that it comprised image series (often originally published as books) and this is the main subject of Campany's essay.
He traces the historic progression that has given rise to modern photo-books, beginning with the pictorialists who concentrated on single images replaced in the 1920 by the modernists who favoured both straight photography and sequences of related images (Campany relates this to industrialisation and mass production without mentioning the 1935 Walter Benjamin essay † which rather stands against his point).
The accumulations of image sequences, especially in books, overcomes the inherent artlessness of straight photography and Campany sees this as a form of montage.
The next development is the move away from straight photography to a more vernacular mode, as in the case of Robert Frank's The Americans (1958/59) which he describes as "subjective reportage modelled on the snapshot" and later, "[whereas] the calculated straight image tends to describe things or people, the snapshot dramatises the instance of the picture making event – a photography not just of the lens but of the lens and shutter combined."
Campany regards this change as gradually replacing the influence of Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment: "Frank’s model of twitchy outsiderism was highly influential. Yet the ‘photographic moment’, which as recently as thirty years ago seemed to be the essence of the medium, has all but vanished from contemporary practice, ceding the momentary to the video freeze-frame. Photography has again become a slow medium attuned more to describing things than instants.
Perhaps the most insightful section of the essay, certainly the most resonant with this writer, is a quote from Garry Winogrand in the final footnote to the essay,
People who use the term [snapshot] don’t even know the meaning. They use it to refer to pictures they believe are loosely organised, or casually made, whatever you want to call it. Whatever terms you like. The fact is when they’re talking about snapshots they’re talking about the family album picture which is one of the most precisely made photographs. Everybody’s fifteen feet away and smiling. The sun is over the viewer’s shoulder, that’s when the picture is taken. Always. It’s one of the most carefully made photographs that ever happened.
Interview with Garry Winogrand in Barbaralee Diamonstein (ed) Visions and Images: Photographers on Photography (London: Travelling Light 1981) 180
Garry Winogrand, quoted in Campany, 2003
Lewis Baltz, writing in 1988 on the development of photo-books states,
Long constrained by the preciosity of the 'master' print and dismayed by the informational limitations of the single image, many photographers chose to work in groups of serial or sequential images, often narrative but many times not. These photographers came to regard the single print as an element of a larger entity: the series, sequence or group, which was, rather than the individual photography, the indivisible unit. Further, many of these photographers were coming to resent the reduction of the photograph to commodity status, costly and rare, and preferred to make their ideas and images available at a low cost to the widest possible audience. At the same time they were wary of the magazine as a means of dissemination, being all too aware of the dubious role played by editors in 'mediating' the photographers intent1ons. The self-published book seemed an appropriate vehicle.
Baltz, 2012, pp.58-9.
† Benjamin's The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935) dealt with how the mass production of imagery devalues the unique individuality of works of art.
"The process of photographing and collecting can also, in itself, be seen as a symbolic act of possession and control.
See Sontag, S . (1979) On Photography. London: Penguin, pp.12-16.
I cannot find this in my edition, nor in the several online PDFs available, but let's look at it anyway.
Magritte's Ceci n'est pas une pipe (1929) seeks to demonstrate that a painting of an item is not the item itself. By the same token a photograph is only a visual sample of its object. There are anecdotal tales of "primitive tribes" avoiding being photographed for fear of losing part of their identity — a notion which has contemporary resonance with online identify theft, but historically is subject to doubt and interpretation, as reported by Strother (2013) in “A Photograph Steals the Soul”: The History of an Idea. Yet in Barthes' view, "the referent adheres" (1980, p.6).
So when (or if) Sontag writes that a photograph can symbolise "possession and control", either in creation or possession of the image, there are precedents to argue this case both ways.
Unless directed otherwhere by commerce ‡, the photographer will tend to point their lens at objects or processes of interest and in doing so vests the image with personal feeling. Correspondingly, given free rein, the viewer, where the appropriate or available medium is the photograph, will choose to look at images of interest.
Subjectivity is at play on both sides of the transaction.
Sontag also writes of photographs as an aid to masturbation (1973, p.16, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux edition) and here the collector is using images as a visual substitute for an unobtainable responsive and physical "object". In the case of pornography, the images would also be filtered through the cumulative (often male) gazes of photographer, editor and channel owner/controller, each of which is likely to reinforce the viewer's visual prejudice.
Sontag was writing at a time before the photography marketplace boom began, when photographs were often collected and exchanged for personal and subjective reasons (ranging from family memories to erotic interest and all points between) rather than venal, financial ones. It was reasonable, then, to suggest that viewers would choose depictions of personal interest and while the motivations in some cases might be unpleasant, many would also be benign and well-founded.
Lewis Baltz, writing in 1988 (the same essay as quoted above regarding the Campany piece) on the subject of generalist art critics turning their attention to photography says that "[f]ew retired from the field with their reputations untarnished; many were in tatters." He continues,
The most egregious example was Susan Sontag's On Photography, an edited anthology of articles written for the New York Review of Books in the early 1970s.4 One critic was unkind enough to remark that since Sontag could no longer think nor write she should consider not publishing the results of her losing struggle. Though perhaps too harsh a judgment, there is little doubt that On Photography, with its unsupported assertions, poorly reasoned arguments, and internal contradictions, is not Sontag's finest work. Nevertheless the book became the nearest thing to a bestseller that photographic criticism had yet enjoyed, and most right-thinking American readers believed that they could learn everything necessary about photography, both as a cultural artefact and as a form of aberrant behaviour, in the pages of this simplistic book.
Baltz, 2012, pp.60.
‡ The most obvious instances of commercial direction are photojournalism, following a story (although sometimes the photographer may be personally interested in the story) and advertising photography. At the other extreme, family photographs are entirely subjectively engaging for the participants - photographers, subjects and viewers. The recent rise of online social photography is a complex sub-category as it can be driven by pressures from peers, influencers, advertisers and personal anxieties.
Sitting between these two extremes Lewis Baltz is a convenient example of a successful artist-photographer whose early success was based on a subject of personal interest.
[S]elect one exhibiting photographer from the 1975 show and explore their influence on a contemporary image maker in relation to taking a typographical approach to their subject matter
Joe Deal and John Schott are excluded from the list for the Research Task and so will be documented here.
References to Deal and Schott are difficult to find in the books to hand, no index entry for either in Grundberg (2021) although they get a brief mention in his five pages on the New Topographics show, "The oddness of the American landscape was a theme for several other photographers: Route 66 motels (John Schott), suburbs on the verge of the desert (Joe Deal), California cottages and bungalows (Henry Wessel Jr.)." (I would count that an index failure).
The 1998 Frizot (ed.) encyclopedia just name checks the pair in a brief section on The role of exhibitions (p.656).
The 1982 edition of Newhall makes no reference to Deal and Schott nor even to the New Topographics ex. itself, which goes to confirm that the importance and influence of the show was largely perceived retrospectively.
Sean O'Hagan makes no mention of them in his 2010 Guardian article that is cited in the course material. The article was prompted by a restaging of the show in 2009 at the LA County Museum of Art but LACMA's web site has only a paragraph on the whole thing.
Joe Deal - he gets a modest Wikipedia entry, including,
In the mid-1970s, Deal was one of ten photographers chosen to participate in the "New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape" exhibition curated by William Jenkins at the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House. Deal contributed 18 black and white photographs to the exhibit in a 32 cm × 32 cm format. Many of the photographs Deal submitted featured homes newly constructed against the desolate landscape of the American Southwest.
He continued photographing the human effect on the landscape in The Fault Zone, which featured images combining human and geologic effects on the area surrounding the San Andreas Fault. Subdividing the Inland Basin featured suburban areas east of Los Angeles and Beach Cities focused on Pacific Ocean communities in Southern California. West and West: Reimagining the Great Plains featured photographs of the grid pattern of much of the Midwestern United States.
He (or his estate) is represented by the Robert Mann gallery, but the images on their site are small, as they are on MoMA and so the photographs below (figs. E1-E3) are from Artsy.net.
I would describe them as workmanlike and competent.
[9Jan] The 1975 New Topographics exhibition was a key event in the timeline of landscape photography but only in hindsight. The participants were Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, the Bechers, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore and Henry Wessel Jr.