New Topographics
Reconsidering the Present: Introduction

Impacted by the new environmental movement, American Topographics was one of the major photographic attitudes of the 1970s, concentrating on measuring the change with an eye to conservation and ecology and most of all to the fate of landscape. If one takes the growing environmental movement into account, it is tempting to read more political meaning into the work of the original nine American artists in the 1975 New Topographics exhibition in Rochester. William Jenkins, the curator, subtitled the show Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, indicating that the mood was one of documentation and observation. Once we raise the issue of what is considered worthy of being photographed and why, then the viewer then realizes to what extent the photographers of the New Topographics Movement challenged assumptions about “landscape” and “scenery.” The young photographers looked backward and examined the results of “progress” without the idealism and myth-making of their predecessors. They were analytic and critical, re-seeing and re-looking at the American landscape of their own time.In order to distinguish a landscape photograph from that of Lee Friedlander for example, it is important to note that Friedlander’s territory was urban or suburban and usually well established. Friedlander often thwarted the vistas of landscape photography by perversely seeking out barriers as if to prevent the viewer from seeing or from even discerning the focal point or purpose of the image itself. The work of Robert Adams, on the other hand, is both clean and clear and straightforward, intent on informing the viewer, showing every blade of grass (if any) with piercing clarity. His vantage point is that of the West and what it once was, what it has become, presaging what will be. Turning away from “America the Beautiful” and reviewing the altered environment with a self-conscious and sophisticated point of view, “New Topographics” also implies a newly dead and deadpan look at the world. If we compare the work of these artists, Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore, and Henry Wessel, shown in Rochester to those late nineteenth-century surveys exploring the West, this new twentieth-century survey is a catalog of the destruction brought about by the arrogance of the Enlightenment and science–a Postmodern “Course of the Empire,” a re-visioning of Thomas Cole two centuries later.

Looking back on the mindset of the artists in 1975, the historian Britt Salvesen wrote, “Bringing that rare moment forward to the present, we see New Topographics deployed rhetorically as if it were a universal standard rather than a set of proposals that loosely linked a group of individuals at a particular time. Speaking in the early 1970’s Walker Evans rejected the sentimental idea that his photographs embodied an era (the 1930s) for later generations. The artist in New Topographics took this warning to heart in dealing with their own time. They drew on the photographic medium, the ideas around them, their personal experiences, anxieties, and hopes – all of which led to the pictures Jenkins and others saw as neutral, uninflected, and objective. These photographs on man-altered landscapes forestalled nostalgia and prevented an escape into the past – instead, they forced viewers to remain in the present and think about the future. New Topographics had redemptive aspects in its renovation of landscape photography, attention to culture landscape, and depiction of heedless land use. Its key message is not revelation but responsibility. Now, we must guard against nostalgia in our evaluations of this work made in the mid-1970’s and keep its real lessons in mind as we look at our environment and the forces threatening it today.”

The age of transcendentalism is long past and by the 1970s the ideals of the sixties have also been sacrificed to the cynicism of history. In a precursor to Postmodernism, the crisp executions of the New Topographics artists seem to suggest an acceptance of the inevitable. But it would be insensitive to the images to dismiss them as mere documents. Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz presented small black and white images that were as beautiful and as finely developed as those of Ansel Adams, Frank Gohlke turned terrain into an abstraction in which the viewer could get lost, Stephen Shore used color notes, like Kandinsky, to create a composition, and there is exquisite craft involved in these works. However, these images completely lack the rhetoric and the idealism of Moonrise over Hernandez, New Mexico (1941). Adams showed, not the purple mountains majesty, but the mundane barren suburbs of Denver. Baltz showed, not the pristine wilderness of Utah but the destructive building of Park City for a ski resort. Without rhetoric, these photographs can be seen as protests against the mass media production of anachronistic images of sublime landscapes of places that no longer exist.  Although these images of the sublime can be found in advertising and films, the reality is quite different.

There are concepts about landscape that need to be considered within the context of the seventies and the relationship of the photographer/s to contemporary landscape. First, according to William Jenkins, his goal was to reconsider what it meant to be a documentarian in 1975, or as he said, “..what it means to make a documentary photograph.” The musing of Jenkins would certainly incorporate the memory and tradition of the FSA images taken during the Depression, images which strove to touch the viewer, to move his mind, to touch her heart. The next decade was consumed by combat photography, usually presented in the pages of picture magazines such as Life, as photo essays, a form of documentation augmented by editorial text. The inevitable reaction to documentation as a form of didacticism was the seminal work of Robert Frank: vernacular photography as a form of spectatorship sans narration or context beyond a bare title. Frank, Friedlander, and Winnogrand were reacting against the beautiful image as a work of art, but the New Topographics photographers were referring to the tradition while trying to update the history of landscape photography. An apt comparison would be that of Manet and Degas attempting to find the modern nude and, in the process, make the antique nude contemporary.

However, “landscape” is a complex genre and has its own long historical discourse which had functioned as a fulcrum allowing the viewer to categorize the scene. From this pivot point, one can identify and distinguish between the pastoral, the picturesque, the beautiful, and the sublime, classifications of the eighteenth century. The essentialism of the fulcrum designed by Edmund Burke in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), William Gilpin’s Observations on the River Wye (1770) and Uvedale Price’s update on Burke, An Essay on the Picturesque as Compared with the Sublime and Beautiful (1794 ). These books on landscape, now classic touchstones, are interesting two hundred years later because the New Topographics photographers were standing on the edge of an ecological abyss, not unlike the English theorists of the eighteenth-century, who were also contemplating change. Caspar David Friedrich could encounter the sublime, as could Turner, but Constable deliberately retreated into the English countryside, turning his back on the manufactories wrought by Richard Arkwright, and seeking the hamlets and havens of the rural villages. For the artists, such as John Constable, and the writers, such as Friedrich Schiller, it was clear that the modern world–not yet born but pending–would change the relationship between human beings and nature. In his elegant essay,

In his elegant essay, On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry (1795), Schiller compared the ancient or naïve poet who was at one with nature with the modern poet, or the sentimental poet who “..reflects on the impression, which the objects make in him, and only on this reflection is the emotion grounded, in which he himself is moved and moves us. The object is here connected with an idea, and only in this connection does his poetical force rest. The sentimental poet is therefore always concerned with two conflicting conceptions and feelings, with reality as limit and with his idea as the infinite, and the mixed feeling, which he arouses, will always testify to this two-fold source. Therefore, since here a plurality of principles occurs, so does it depend upon which of the two is predominant in the feeling of the poet and in his representation, and consequently, a difference in the treatment of it is possible. For now arises the question, whether he dwells more on the reality or more on the ideal, or whether he wants to achieve the former as an object of aversion, or the latter as an object of inclination. His representation will, therefore, be either satirical or it will (in a broader sense of this word, which will be explained afterward) be elegiac; every sentimental poet will adhere to one of these two modes of feeling.”

The point is not to suggest that Ansel Adams was a “naïve poet” or that Joe Deal was a “sentimental poet,” but that the artists of the 1970s were also conscious of the change that had transformed the West from a virgin trackless expanse to an industrialized site, encrusted with dwellings, crisscrossed by roads and denuded of its Edenic purity. The role of the New Topographics photographers was to survey, so to speak, the damage done, and, in doing so, they could also measure the distance between contemporary humans who visited nature in carefully constructed theme parks. Nature was no longer itself, but something that had to be “represented” or demonstrated to the traveler who would be directed to trails and routes chosen by park managers. Meanwhile, everything outside the boundaries of the nationalized lands would be “settled” or developed. It was these developments or changes or transformations to lands once untouched that the photographers carefully chronicled. The images shown in New Topographics in Rochester were apparently unprepossessing, lacking the size of an Adams or the velvety sensuality of a Weston. Somewhat larger than a snapshot, these reduced pictures embraced by simple mats and frames did not announce themselves; they simply hung and waited for the viewer to come closer and look at the image, not in terms of “beauty” but in the terms of the photograph itself. The scenes were almost deliberately obstinate in withholding satisfaction but the technique was exquisite.  The small black and white photographs of Blatz and Adams chart the growth of suburban tracts in the once pristine West.

Lewis Baltz (1945-2014) was born in South Orange County about sixty miles south of Los Angeles where the future photographer grew up. In the sixties only part of Orange County was developed and mostly along the coastline, so the family moved to Newport Beach, California, a town of wealthy people mixed in with the more ordinary middle-class inhabitants on the edge of a huge territory called Irvine Ranch. The Ranch had been under private ownership by the San Francisco based Irvine family which had an agricultural empire in southern California. But during the post-war period, it became obvious to the heirs that the 93,000 acres could be best used for development of south Orange County. Under the guidance of architect Willliam Pereira, the process of planning a major university, the University of California, Irvine, and the communities south to the coast. According to the official website of the Irvine Historical Society, “William Pereira became known as the father of the largest master-planned area on the North American continent.  The small black and white photographs of Blatz and Adams chart the growth of suburban tracts in the once pristine West.” During the sixties, seventies, and eighties, the Irvine Ranch property was carefully divided into towns, named neighborhoods and developments for homes and industrial parks and shopping centers to service the population. It was this transformation from agricultural ranch to planned communities that Lewis Baltz witnessed as he grew up. Just as the homes and residences were designed to echo a Spanish heritage–the Yorba family had once owned a rancho in the territory–the businesses and light industries, mostly technological, had a specific architectural style: sparse and modern and unadorned and utilitarian.

In 1974 Baltz explored the changes that had taken place since he was a child and the result was his landmark achievement, “New Industrial Parks Near Irvine, California.” The buildings he selected were anonymous, suitable for multiple purposes, and were, therefore, characterless but useful. He approached these structures that were springing up here and there in Irvine, arranged along the streets named after famous scientists such as Tesla, as shapes. As he remarked later, “To work in a way integrated with architecture, I think the work we’re speaking about here is not a question of putting my work in his building but a question of using that building and the activities in that building as a way of generating a dialogue in images. The work is not even site-specific, it’s really site-generated. It’s something that’s made exclusively for that space and that space with its present series of functions. In that sense, it becomes, like most works today, ephemeral.” The resulting book of fifty-one images, “New Industrial Parks Near Irvine, California” were shown in Rochester, a much older city, a place where these sharp-edged buildings would have been aliens. The way Baltz approaches these invaders on old ranch lands as both being there and being strange in a photographic act of defamiliarization. Guy Blaisdale remarked on the framing of the subject matter, by writing, “Like modernist painting in its declaration of flatness one of the most important aspects of Baltz’ photographs are their allusions to thinness, a property beautifully shown in the New Industrial Parks near Irvine, California. The genre of these photographs is architectural photography limited to three aspects – facades, corners, and buildings on-site. The buildings and the photographs parse each other, subordinating on another in the angle of deflection, and here the dawning of an aspect, fixed in a print, is not like the revelation of a human physiognomy, the spectra of a soul. Looking here pushes you back and defeats weave of story. But it places you in the presence of these buildings, a presence which we share immediately whether looking at the book or visiting the site itself. There is almost no difference except that the images serve the buildings better than they deserve. But then the fixed images are about something besides the buildings. So consider an imaginary construction sequence out in the world which brought into being the object matter so subtlety transformed by Baltz’s suite.“

The Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago described the simplicity of the working methods of Baltz: “Shot with a 35mm lens on a 35mm camera (usually at eye level), and stopped down for maximum depth of field, Baltz chooses his materials for maximum clarity and precision.” In organizing the photographs, Baltz put carefully precise captions in the book, New Industrial Parks Near Irvine, California, and when these images appeared in a gallery setting, they would be shown in a grid format. The Bechers also used the grid, which implies a display of a group of certain types of a particular category. The German photographers were probably thinking of August Sander and his project of classifying the German people of the early twentieth century, but Baltz’s black and white buildings in a strict vertical-horizontal format reflected the architectural survey grid that determined the placement and construction of the developments in Orange County. This study of a “man-altered” landscape that cannot be described as picturesque or sublime and certainly not beautiful or pastoral. There is no position for these blank and bleak images in the long study of landscape photography and Baltz seems to deliberately place his images outside the zone of discourse as if urging the viewer to create a new way of speaking about such an act. It is with his early series in Irvine that Baltz laid out, using a long stretched-out line of framed buildings, that the photographer announced the arrival of a new topographics–an unadorned presentation of a site. The next post will discuss the 1979 series at Park City and the related works of Robert Adams in “The New West.”


If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
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