The Design Observer Group


Posted 03.01.10


Shana Lopes

New (and Old) Topographics


Joel Sternfeld, Near Lake Powell, Arizona, August 1979. [Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York]

Interest in the 1975 exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-altered Landscape has grown significantly in the past decade, culminating in its 2009 restaging at its original venue, the George Eastman House, and in an exhibition that is traveling through 2012. Its latest venue is the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona. As part of its appearance at the CCP, I curated a complementary exhibition, a selection of works from the Center’s permanent collection, each of which has an affinity with the group of works first shown together 35 years ago. Presented here is my selection.

For the original exhibition the George Eastman House assembled a group of 168 photographs by ten photographers. Curated by William Jenkins, New Topographics signaled a new approach to landscape photography that privileged an aesthetic of apparent objectivity, while taking as its subject matter the effects of humanity on the American landscape. The motivations of the individual artists differed, yet all of the photographs abandoned — and in turn critiqued — the prevailing approach to landscape photography, practiced by such weighty figures as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, which sought to show pristine, seemingly untouched wilderness. The New Topographics artists acknowledged people’s interaction with the land by picturing built urban environments, suburban sprawl and sparsely inhabited rural areas — tract homes, trailer parks, strip malls, motels, warehouses, irrigation canals, to name some of the non-monumental subjects. The artists included in New Topographics — and the exhibition as a whole — expanded the definition of landscape photography. 

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The impulse to photograph the "man-altered" landscape has been a persistent theme since the emergence of photography in the mid-19th century — though of course the motivations of photographers change from one generation to the next, and within generations there can be very different emphases. Jenkins used the term topography to make a connection to such 19th-century survey photographers as Timothy O’Sullivan and William Henry Jackson, who documented the geographical expeditions that were then opening up the West for white settlement. Many of the CCP’s O’Sullivan photographs depict signs of man. For instance, the 1871 albumen print Black Canyon, Colorado River, Looking Above from Camp 7 frames the canyon so that its walls construct the sides of the photograph, directing the viewer’s eye toward the picture’s edges. O’Sullivan situates a boat and man at the bottom of the frame, leading us to understand that this land was then being actively explored. A photograph by Mark Klett and Gordon Bushaw from the Rephotographic Survey Project of the late 1970s traces the footsteps of various 19th-century survey photographers, locating the precise vantage points from which they photographed. Klett and Bushaw rephotographed not only to record what changes had occurred but also to explore the perspectives of their predecessors.

Two photographers that the New Topographics artists often mention as influences are Eugène Atget and Walker Evans. Both examined and recorded the built, vernacular landscape, the former in Paris at the turn of the 20th century and the latter in Depression-era America. Other photographers included here document man’s presence in the land in various ways, including a pictured person, a telegraph pole, or even the visible hand of the artist, as in Thomas Barrow’s photograph in which he literally crossed out the landscape by scratching into the negative’s emulsion before printing.

Not only do the following works from the Center’s archive foreshadow the New Topographics' “stylessness” and banal content — they also chart the development of this theme to the point where this “stylessness” has become a style in its own right.