A debate about the role of the New Topographic movement in moving away from established landscape traditions.
“This was not a movement … it’s very easy to believe that first there was a group of people who said, “Yes, we are the New Topographers-”
“-Down with Ansel Adams!-”
“-Let’s put on a show. And it didn’t work that way at all. It was a reflection of something much larger that was going on amongst a much larger group of people.”
The New Topographics eschewed the established trappings of the landscape genre and explored the social aspects of less traditional places. Landscape photography has always changed focus as new photographers and groups have approached it and it is up for debate if the New Topographic movement had a role in moving photography more generally away from the established landscape traditions.
The trajectory of landscape practice needs to be considered within the history of photography. Without the New Topographics, the genre would have undoubtedly changed with time, but not necessarily into what it is today.
Prior to the impact of the New Topographic approach in the 1970s, landscape photography was an extension of classic landscape painting going back centuries. The word ‘landscape’ is derived from the Dutch, ‘landschap’ meaning “a patch of ground”. (Visual-arts-cork.com, 2016) In the 16th Century, this meant a painting or drawing which portrayed a scenic view. Two years after the influential artists Constable and Turner began to use landscapes as their focus, the first photographic movement was formed. Known as ‘pictorial photography’, the genre concentrated on the mood and affect that photography could evoke. (Callow, 2016) The technology in cameras was very basic and didn’t allow the photographers to adapt their work. The mindset at the time was to emulate landscape paintings or drawings which meant using print manipulation to look less like a photograph.
The first solely photographic exhibition took place in 1852 (Baldwin et al., 2004) in London, arranged by the Society of Arts. It featured over four hundred photographs from seventy-six photographers. The purpose of the show was to highlight how photography could be artistic rather than simply functional in a commercial sense. An issue that photography had was that the medium was not regarded as art but instead seen as simple and mechanical.
This way of thinking was challenged in 1889 when Dr. Peter Henry Emerson expounded a more natural photographic take on landscapes in which photography was treated independently from painting. Following on from this, in the early 20th Century Alfred Stieglitz challenged the 19th Century status quo of emulating painted art. Stieglitz felt that photography should focus on what the technology could capture but from a personal view.
‘The Sublime’ has been a key focus of landscape photography since it began. Called “major expressions” by Rod Giblett (Giblett, 2009), a focus on picturesque and sublime vistas kept the genre at an artistic stand-still. The Sublime moves beyond mere beauty and aims to evoke strong emotional responses from the viewer. Mixed with these approaches was the intent of creating escapist imagery that didn’t reflect the reality of human life, with most photographs lacking even a hint of human influence.
Whilst the sublime photography of the 19th century was mostly European, the 20th century saw the increasing influence of American culture on landscape expression. One of the most influential American photographers was Ansel Adams. Adams was a member of the ‘F64’, the first group to eschew the traditions of pictorial photography and instead use technique and technology to focus on detail and sharpness. Interestingly, the principle of this movement was that “the camera should be used for a recording of life, for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself, whether it be polished steel or palpitating flesh” (Weston, 1924) although Adams himself ignored the less tasteful aspects of life. Whilst he aided photography separating from other art forms, his work still portrayed landscapes in the same conventional, sublime way. At a discussion on the New Topographics, a member was of the opinion that Adams, “represented a strain in American art that goes back to 19th century landscape painting and it’s pretty undiluted stuff.” (NEW TOPOGRAPHICS: Landscape Photography Then and Now, 2010)
The exhibition, ‘New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape’ took place in New York in 1975 to a negative response from a disinterested audience. (O’Hagan, 2010) This new slant on landscape photography encompassed the work of a handful of predominantly American artists who focused on urban spaces and man’s influence on the environment. In the Guardian, Sean O’Hagan described the movement as “a reaction to the tyranny of idealised landscape photography.” (O’Hagan, 2010) Their work occupied a space between conceptual art and documentary photography. The photography centered almost exclusively on the urban environment, where man-made structures overtook the need to shoot the natural picturesque. (Gosney, 2013) Fosco Lucarelli referred to their work as “a plain unemotional documentation of the way man has come to alter [nature].” (Lucarelli, 2015) Jan Tumlir of X-Tra Magazine considered that no other show had made such an impact on the rest of contemporary art, “from Conceptual art to “identity politics” to the return of the tableau picture form”. (Tumlir, 2010)
This new approach to landscapes depended far less on the individual image and instead found meaning within a wider context. No single shot was more important than another. (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2009) Landscapes had for so long been monopolised by depictions of grandeur and majesty and this was now challenged, paving the way for this tradition to be toppled. (NEW TOPOGRAPHICS: Landscape Photography Then and Now, 2010) Part of the exploration of these new types of landscapes was to ascertain what a photograph could be and what could be photographed.
It wasn’t only the subjects that changed, but also how they were photographed. In terms of composition, traditionally landscape photographs always included the horizon, generally in the center of the frame. Some chose to remove this aspect completely. (Gosney, 2013)
The commonalities of established practice pushed the New Topographics towards topography rather than “another art movement or aesthetic principle.” (Gosney, 2013) The historical and scientific elements of this movement were key to distancing them from tradition.
The basis of the work was much more about human values than beauty (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2009). The attempt to alter a photograph into something more painterly had been done before by many photographers. (Tumlir, 2010) Rather than romanticising landscapes they didn’t want to change anything, instead photographing their reality. (SFMOMA, 2016) William Jenkins expressed that the likes of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston portrayed America in a narrow and overly-romanticised way. (Gosney, 2013) The photographic fraternity responded negatively to this, criticising the Becher’s work as, “boring, old-fashioned or documentary [photography] only”. (SFMOMA, 2016)
What interested the photographers in the original show was using landscapes as a reflection of culture. They found the basis of Adam’s work to be objectionable; the photographs didn’t invite the viewer to see what was really there. His work was escapism for the viewer, reflecting the landscape as grand and uplifting, which wasn’t reality. (NEW TOPOGRAPHICS: Landscape Photography Then and Now, 2010) In response to this kind of work, the New Topographics photography was “unemphatic and undramatic and anti-heroic”, (NEW TOPOGRAPHICS: Landscape Photography Then and Now, 2010) in other words, true to life. Focusing on how human progress had changed landscapes was a rallying call for the movement. Highlighting social issues and the connection between people and the landscape was as important as the views themselves. (Gosney, 2013)
Many of the photographs seem empty at first glance but hold more meaning when studied in detail. (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2009)
For the Becher’s, photographing water towers was the most enjoyable and represented function over form, of adaption to a situation over design. In exploring these towers and other elements of infrastructure, they found repeating patterns in structures with slight differences. This lead Hilla Becher to the idea of typology to present these similarities and distinctions. (SFMOMA, 2016)
Lewis Baltz refers the undocumented elements of human life “invisible … simply material that people filtered out.” In his own work he strove to differentiate himself even from the other New Topographics, seeking to be as objective as possible by not adopting a style or a point of view. He wanted his work to look as if “anyone could do it”, just wanting to record what was in front of the camera without judgement. Being a ‘photographer’ was not his aim, never feeling he had a role in art history. (Baltz, 2012)
Finding a New Topographics photograph that shared similarities with an Ansel Adams shot was difficult. I settled on ‘Mobile Homes’ by Robert Adams and Ansel Adams’ ‘The Tetons and the Snake River’. ‘Mobile Homes’ is the banal, urban contrast to ‘The Tetons’; both use a backdrop of mountains and skies that are quite dominant.
The similarities don’t go much further than skin-deep though. ‘The Tetons’ shows a breadth of nature that is unusual in the world; the mix of hills, mountains, rivers and trees is an escapist, painterly vision that’s true to tradition. The horizon line in ‘Mobile Homes’ breaks with traditions, placed halfway through the frame and the composition unusual in cropping the corner of the closest ‘home.
Ansel Adams uses captures a dramatic shot of strong, sharp shapes with deep tones that accentuates the presence of the mountains and hills. In contrast, Robert Adams captures a ‘flat’, ‘dull’ scene which is far more realistic and subdued.
The range of tones are better captured in ‘The Tetons’ where the light and shadows are captured without blown-out highlights or all-black shadows. ‘Mobile Homes’ overexposes the whites of the titular mobile homes which puts emphasis on how unnatural they are within the environment. Personally, the overexposure appeals- the contrast of the harsh white against the differing greys imbues the image with a hostility and dull emptiness that gives the scene more meaning.
In terms of viewer preference, it’s a case of “landscape or life?”, a choice of “the natural and spiritual versus the urban and the populous.” (Searle, 2002)
New Topographic photographer Frank Gohlke considered that the exhibition wasn’t particularly groundbreaking as studies of other aspects of life; geography, art history, literature etc. had been considering similar ideas since the 1950s. (B. Buntin, 2016) Dmitry Kiyan agreed, commenting that, “this movement would not exist without those who headed its beginnings decades ago.” (MISRACH, 2006)
Writer and photographer Deborah Bright has written extensively about the New Topographics and does not have as high an opinion about them as most. Of Bright, Kelly Davis writes that she accused the group of “neglecting to articulate a clear social critique.” (Davis, 2005)
Looking back, the Museum für Photographie finds that the New Topographics had worldwide influence on photography as a presentation of culture, far more than what was attributed to them at the time. (Photomuseum.de, 2015) On the other hand, a New Topographic photographer believes that the exhibition has “accrued meaning” as time has gone by and has been recontextualised within art history. (NEW TOPOGRAPHICS: Landscape Photography Then and Now, 2010)
With the proliferation of camera technology to the masses in smartphones and inexpensive digital cameras, every aspect of human life is now documented. I believe this is a natural progression from the shift in thinking that the New Topographics began. Whereas they laid the groundwork of social awareness in photography through more banal elements of human life, millennials use apps like ‘Instagram’ to document small details of their lives. What began as urban expansion into the traditional landscape has become commercialism, from food to fashion.
Whilst photography and painting had vied for supremacy of the art world for years they no longer do in the modern day, instead attempting to gain a fair share of the gallery space. (Tumlir, 2010)
I’ve never been enamoured by traditional landscape photography- the unrealistic, overly romanticised and ‘empty’ (lacking in human presence) scenes have never resonated with how I view the world. I do photograph the picturesque and beautiful, but with -what I now realise to be- a New Topographic frame of mind. I take photographs of places and spaces that mean something within the context of my life. Whilst the New Topographics encompassed their documentation of urban life entirely within their photographs, I use descriptive text alongside my work to share my particular response and experience.
This photograph is a useful example of my general artistic bent. In the previous assignment I spoke about my connection with this particular place; it has social and emotional elements that aren’t apparent from the scene alone. I set out to take a photograph that would be pleasing to the eye but would also be personal and have greater context. As such, I see myself as a product of New Topographic and Sublime thinking, where both approaches inform my artistic approach.
The evidence suggests that the New Topographics played a major role in shifting the focus of landscape photography from the traditional sublime to the socially inspired. Whilst changes in reactions to man’s role within landscapes were occurring in other aspects of society, it was the New Topographics that utilised this new thinking in photography. That’s not to say that the sublime has been forgotten, rather that the breadth of landscape photography has widened dramatically from that picturesque tradition.
Landscapes have and always will change with time and were in flux long before the New Topographics made their mark. From imitating other art forms to embracing new technologies, photography has always moved with the times. As a modern-day photographer, my work would not be the same without the full history of landscape practice behind me. My point-of-view has always been as an individual with personal reactions photographing the personal picturesque.
Without quotes: 1964
With quotes: 2108
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