Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Britt Salvesen on New Topographics

I have a natural empathy with the 1970s as it was the time of my life when I started work, I loved every moment because there were no restrictions on how and what we did, life was a pleasure. It is not surprising then that I find New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-altered Landscape (NT) a part of the history of photography that is interesting and relevant to my study. Having obtained the original catalogue I can now spend time looking at the work in print, something I prefer to screen images. Britt Salvesen, Director and Chief Curator at the Centre for Creative Photography, University of Arizona is the author of the essay that accompanies the catalogue and I have used that as a guide to my research.

Salvesen opens with a look at the history of photography prior to 1975 and the formation of the New Topographics (NT) as an idea and its curation by William Jenkins. NT is an exhibition of landscape photography that opened up a new direction for photography with a title of the exhibition that is unusual and does not really explain much of its content. The survey of the land and its features are the study of Topographics and is generally associated with the work of a surveyor. Topographic surveys record the features of the land, what is on the land (buildings, walls, roads etc) and the contours of the land, often expressed as a height above a datum, sometimes from sea level. The product of this work is then represented through scale drawings and will typically include a plan and various cross sections. From this work an architect or engineer will often design and plan new works onto the landscape. The topographic photographer's work is no different although the resulting output is a series of photographs where we can see clearly what is there and how big it is. The combination of surveyor and photographer will give a complete and concise description of what was there on the dates the work was carried out. 

The exhibition shows the work of ten artists by way of 168 photographs. The artists were:
Robert Adams
Lewis Baltz
Bernd and Hilla Becher
Joe Deal
Frank Gohlke
Nicholas Nixon
John Schott
Stephen Shore
Henry Wessel, Jr.

Up until William Jenkins, assistant curator of twentieth century photography at George Eastman House brought them together they were not part of any cohort although some had achieved exposure in the art world. Their coming together however did mark a significant point in the history of photography and the term New Topographics has become a label and validated approach to landscape photography. Salvesen makes the point that at the time "neither the original viewers, nor the curator, nor the participating artists anticipated the outcome" Forty years on from this event and its significance enriches the landscape photography discourse as much as ever. It is surprising that many of the artists had never met and for many they never saw the exhibition in Rochester. In fact at the time it was seen by only a small number of visitors as it had a limited audience and it is by serendipity that it has gained such notoriety and influence. The history of NT can be traced back to the 1960s and in particular the work of Walker Evans and Ed Ruscha, both having completed work associated with the cultural landscape. John Szarkowski at MOMA in New York had sustained Evans's work from the FSA and in 1971 curated a major retrospective spanning the photographers forty year career. Some of the NT artists were heavily influenced by Evans, particularly Gohlke who found affinity with his work and that of Eugene Atget. Salvesen describes Evans work as ...."these elements of 'documentary style', a nuanced, deliberately oblique formulation that can be broached via the broader concept of the vernacular". Salvesen uncovers how the NT artists looked to the work of Ansel Adams and Minor White with a degree of scepticism while at the same time acknowledging the early impact on them by these well known names. Deal went to Yosemite and says it was like seeing everything in quotation marks, while Baltz criticised the dramatic high contrast printing style, which by the 1960s seemed overblown and embarrassingly self conscious. The NT photographers had a wish to depict the mid 1970s America without glorifying it or condemning it. Jenkins wrote of the participants as photographers who can foster ambiguity around the very issue of attachment.... the makers attachment.... the viewers attachment and a detachment of generations of the photographers expressive capacity. Walker Evans, when asked by a student to describe why he photographs billboards, Evans said "I love them". The student then asked is there as social comment here and Evans replied "Not in the least... I photograph what is in front of me...".

So photography based upon attraction, where the viewer is seduced has moved towards photography that does not reveal the motivation of the photographer and this adds a complexity that is undertaken by all of the NT photographers in varying ways.
It is to Jenkins then that the cohort were assembled. Jenkins work as a curator was not well paid but he was expected to travel and meet artists, visit exhibitions and look at portfolios. Jenkins first got to know Deal when he was photographing the art deco houses in Rochester NY. His stylised, detail orientated formal approach was heavily reliant on the influence of Evans and these images are where the seeds of an exhibition on architecture were sown in Jenkins mind. At around that time Jenkins also saw the work of Baltz in Los Angeles and upon his return to Rochester and further discussions with Deal the architecture/landscape idea grew.

Photographers had been showing architecture in the landscape since the 1839 but Jenkins and Deal found no evidence of treating the built environment as a subject on its own. Any previous attempts at showing structures and buildings were more likely to be well known landmarks with elements subjectivity installed by the photographer rather than suburban housing portrayed with critical analysis. Deal pursued this in his own work, changing the way he photographed the Rochester facades to give more space around the building and seeking out the ordinary. When shown this work was not well received. The critic Gene Thornton described the genre as lacking "technique and life". When describing R Adams Denver Views he declared "...I felt I was looking at pictures made without human direction by mere machines..."
These comments were not universal and others wrote of Baltz's Tract Houses project as making "aesthetic something that in reality has no redeeming aesthetic quality"
Salvesen points out that this form of pictorial pleasure, cerebral as apposed to cathartic, is altogether more compatible with advanced painting, sculpture and installation art than with mainstream photography. These pre New Topographics reviews point to a new attitude towards photographic innovation and as it had not yet coalesced into a style it resisted assimilation to existing critical vocabularies. Modernists were finding it difficult to relinquish the basic requirements of subjectivity.

The NT photographers, while being a disparate group of individuals, together were forming a sceptical opinion towards the previous generation. Robert Adams did acknowledge the impact of Ansel Adams while explaining that his work was essentially different with its own aims. Baltz criticised the dramatic high contrast printing. By the 1960s the Ansel Adams photographs were seen by this cohort as overdetermined, overblown and embarrassingly self conscious. It was without doubt Walker Evans who the group were looking towards as inspiration and the construction of a new style, one where, as Gohlke put it "... the photographer seems to be absent...".
The NT photographers were depicting the USA of the 70s without glorifying or condemning and transmitted this with well crafted prints with no darkroom tricks and assembling them into a unifying narrative.
As Salvesen describes it "it is about the environment and the land" with Adams being most explicitly aligned with environmentalism and possibly the one most lured by sentimentality proffered by the landscape. As Americans became prosperous they had leisure time to explore Yosemite, the Everglades, the Grand Canyon etc. and with photography becoming a popular pastimes these areas generated an affection with the public who saw them as pure and pristine. Salvesen is conscious of the possibility that NT might in retrospect be considered as environmentalist but the show was resistant to being aligned with any propaganda. One reviewer (William Wilson) did describe it as "ecologically based social criticism" but on the other hand it is possible to be critical and describe the work as not critical enough as there are images that question land use and the aesthetics of the architecture. Pictures of essentially controversial land use that engender feelings inside are difficult to be come detached from as a photographer and in some cases perhaps impossible, especially for Americans who tend to wear their hearts on their sleeves.
What I think we end up with are photographs that epitomise the paradox of being both boring and interesting. This is how Robert Adams summarises his objective, "a normal view of the landscape. Almost." What I think we are getting towards is a position somewhere between Ansel Adams and a snapshot taken by a resident of his new home. They needed to be as technically fine as Ansels but convey a detachment one gets from Roberts.

Jenkins worked closely with Deal on the curation of NT and they collaborated closely on the title. Deal it seems did most of the work towards the title and wanted something that tried to say contemporary landscape photography and indicated a break from the past. The result New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape is open for debate and asks questions over what we are to expect.
New has connotations of improvement, progress, recent or contemporary in fact anything other than the past. Topographics is nothing new although has more of a general reference to maps and the original dictionary definition of it being a detailed description of a place or tract of land. The contributing photographers had varying responses to themselves being "topographers",with Adams questioning the geographical focus and its implications of objectivity. Jenkins and Deal had agreed that there was a need for a sub title to make it more explanatory. Photographs of a Man-altered Landscape is full of words that require further investigation. Photographs simply asserts the medium and identifies a specific practise and that they are objects as apposed to the word photography. The compound adjective man-altered is gender specific although there is little feminist objection generally to the whole being described as mankind. The noun it modifies is landscape in the singular and is denoted here to be something imagined and created or used by humans. There is no reference to a before image of the landscape only the after which is then a record of construction and disruption, socially and physically, beneficial or detrimental.
The selection of the photographs and who had the final decision on inclusion is not clear although Jenkins and Deal, one as curator/author and the other as artist/designer had the responsibility for the projects realisation and final content. With ten artists it was never likely that a harmonious agreement would be across the board. Adams and Gohlke expressed reservations about the whole idea and Adams was never enthusiastic about being a part of the show. In part this was due to Jenkins having described it at one stage as a post Ansel Adams endeavour. Adams in his younger days held a deep respect for Ansel Adams' work and probably could put his devotion to landscape photography entirely down to Ansel.

Jenkins retrospectively commented "People come to me and think that I understand this because I invented it, and I didnt really understand it very well then. I think my essay (in the catalogue) reveals that" What Jenkins is reminding the reader of is that NT was an experiment. Readers of the essay may never find what they are looking for as Jenkins it seems may have rushed the writing, never expecting that a generation later it would be dissected by academics and writers wanting to find every nuance of the NT exhibition. The essay is essentially a centre around which the artists are asked to contribute and they are all quoted, so in essence it becomes a conversation. Jenkins essay is concise dealing with the themes of style, objectivity and the document although some critics at the time were less than impressed, describing the exhibition as a "Topographical Error". As Salvesen writes when he starts to finally bring the whole work into a summary "... that through style works of art have meaning... even if in NT that does not include personal, idiosyncratic or self contained meanings" The confusion of genre and subject can be considered a self conscious aspect of NT.
The problem of style is going to challenge the viewer (much less in 2015 than 1975 perhaps) due to expectations being derived from modernist examples of the genre. The straight prints, uniformity of subject matter, the built environment, perfect sharp focus, minimal grain and tonal range were features that had little aesthetic value, previously associated with expression, abstraction, narration and the unique hand printed one off example with high contrast and darkroom manipulation.
Jenkins concludes, NT may have been a "stylistic event" but the actual photographs are far richer in meaning and scope than the simple making of an aesthetic point.
The exhibition was hung in the Brackett Clark gallery in George Eastman House. The room was divided with temporary walls, some white, some grey. The artists work was presented in groups interrupted, all framed with metal section frames and white mats.
Visitors to the exhibition were asked for their thoughts and although taking into account their age, assumptions of Eastman House as a venue, experience with photography and prints the response was wide and difficult to summarise. Some examples include:-

He couldn't have been doing it for his enjoyment, because they are very dull pictures in my opinion.

They obviously didn't take it from an artistic point of view. It looks like it was their job, their project

Viewers apparently admired the lighter printing style which at a simple visual level distinguished them from the high contrast, expressive, chiaroscuro seen in photojournalism at that time. 
The exhibition was on view for nearly a year in Rochester after which it travelled to two other locations which accounts for the lack of contemporary reviews. In Los Angeles Robert Woolard drew no conclusions and said there was no way of knowing if this was a passing phenomenon or if it is avant-garde with an enduring attitude to the artistic medium. 

In conclusion, NT was a paradigm shift for photography although what is surprising is that no follow on cohort or curator took up the legacy to develop it and continue the discourse with an evolution that would provide heirs to the tradition. Jenkins left Eastman House soon afterwards to teach photography in Arizona and finds the attention NT receives to be bothersome and disproportionate. In addition none of the artists clung on to the NT and instead wanted to work on their own and have individual identities. All went on to produce significant bodies of work and receive varying amounts of support. It is not until the mid 80s and later that the true legacy of NT becomes apparent. Through the work of Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth and Andreas Gursky (with others) they take the style to another level. Biographer and archivist Susanne Lange says that they have taken it "to absurdity" using the abstractness, serial sequences, order and structure as the actual subject matter of the image, heightened by vivid colour and immense scale. In the USA the NT artists did little to influence others in the style of NT even though most of them at some time later in life did teach at universities. Despite the recognition the artists subsequently received the NT exhibition is only one line on their CVs, .. a group show, Rochester, 1975.

New Topographics is in contemporary photography deployed as if it were a universal standard and a kind of masterclass for all photographers to aspire to. It was in reality a loose set of artists who Jenkins and Deal noticed at the time as having something to say about what they saw around them and forced the viewer to look at the present and think about the future. We may see it as a nostalgic period but the lessons from then are completely relevant in our contemporary practice today.

Reflection and Learning Outcome

The research and words above are just the tip of the iceberg when looking at this phenomenon. We all know something of NT, it is difficult to have got this far in photography without some exposure to the work and most will have an opinion on how it affected them. For myself it was a step change a year ago when I finally saw past the work of Ansel Adams and wondered if there was indeed more of a narrative in the banal than the high contrast overworked expressive image. At this change point as a photographer you realise you will abandon most of your audience who liked your "nice" photographs and instead you will be working alone, for yourself and perhaps others of a like mind who will "get it" and take the time to look past the image on paper and see the message beneath. Building a narrative into image making is something I now spend far more time considering, rather than considering the viewer and their reaction as my prime objective. The craftmanship behind these "type" of images is required to be of the highest standard, similar in impact to editing, in so much as when it is done well you may not see it. Banality for some is another word for uninteresting and that is the challenge ahead, to prove them wrong.


Salvesen, Britt., 2013. New Topographics.Arizona: Steidl.

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