Landscape and Idea

The leading edges of Postmodernism were architecture and photography and film, all of which moved away from Modernism in the sixties. By the eighties, the shifts seen in these mediums would be characterized as “Postmodernism.” For a variety of complex reasons, the fine arts world followed the lead of philosophy and agreed that one era–modernism–had ended and that the direction into the future was unclear. During the seventies in American, there were signs that street photography as practiced by Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand, had run its course and the objective disinterested eye could be cast elsewhere. Perhaps because it is a medium with less at stake or with less tradition than painting, photography, along with film and architecture, registered the first seismic shifts away from the purity of Modernism to the new interest in critique and commentary. Photography even began to grapple with its own past and revisited the founding genres a decade before postmodernism caught up with the rest of the art world. If Postmodernism can be thought of as a pause to reflect upon the roots of Modernism, then the New Topographic movement was one of the early rumblings that it was time to critically analyze the technological present as well as to examine the cost of “progress.” Therefore, the decades of the seventies and eighties were not just decades of art about art as would be evidenced in painting and sculpture but a genuine engagement with politics. These apparently banal photographs required a new mode of viewing, not of appreciation for beauty or even of interest in the topic, but as a way of seeing from the past towards a commentary on the now.

Photography in the seventies was about photography, or to be more precise about mass media and the “image world.” Once photography becomes about photography itself–its theories, its practices, its discourse–then the next phase is conceptual. Although in time the conceptual photography that emerged in the seventies tracks with Conceptual Art, the photographers were not concerned with Duchampian anti-art ideas but about its own past. Therefore, as with Postmodernity, conceptual photography cannot be understood unless the viewer knows the point of reference. One must be conversant with the photographic movements of the past, old genres, and historical photographer and iconic photographs. In other words, it is quite possible for a casual observer to go to a museum or gallery and enjoy the images but unless s/he knows the history of photography, the viewing will be one-dimensional.

By the seventies, the fact that photography became conceptual as is evidenced by the return to the original grounds of American landscape photography: the West of nineteenth-century America before it was modernized or settled or, as the parlance expressed it “tamed.” The “West” was a place that was a non-place in the sense that it was a constantly moving dividing line. On one side of the line as “civilization” where Europeans had arrived at American eastern shores and over time took over from the Native Americans, colonizing the edges of the continent. Beyond these fringes was the mythic “frontier” or terra incognita. As more and more settlers arrived, the desire to push back the frontier increased and as “civilization” moved inextricably westward, the frontier shifted beyond Appalachia, beyond the Mississippi River and into the blank pages of the Western territories. “America,” then is composed of a collection of tropes, all of which had mystical meanings and an almost magical power. The continent was “discovered” as if it did not exist until Europeans laid eyes upon it. The land was “virgin” that is not yet converted into towns, cities, and farms, which were, in turn, the very definition of “civilization” itself. The Natives, who greeted the settlers and colonizers more or less warily, were considered impediments rather than humans with vested interests in their own territories. As the tide of encroachment towards the Pacific rolled onward, these indigenous peoples were purged in the name of Manifest Destiny.  But, at the time, this Destiny was a quest that exerted a powerful spell that blinded the Europeans to the rights of the inhabitants who had preceded them.

After the Civil War, the states, from north to south, were stained with blood from brother killing brother and the original colonies had fallen. America was no longer that new Garden of Eden where Europeans could start over and make lives that would be impossible in their homelands. But the eyes of many Americans dislocated and disrupted and disturbed by the War looked West. The Frontier became the New Eden and the West was imagined as the new beginning. The story of “taming” and “settling” the West, like that of colonizing the eastern states, was cloaked in linguistic fantasies to mask the unsavory process of wiping the territory free of the “Indians” who protested this theft for decades. Previous posts have discussed the original photographing of the Western spaces and what must have been an astonishing experience for the first photographers, fresh from the battlefields of the Civil War. Although the nomenclature of landscape painting could serve as a guide for Timothy O’Sullivan, Alexander Gardner, William Henry Jackson and the others, the Western landscape was so unlike European models that these pioneers found themselves writing a new language in landscape conventions–vast blank openness, endless vistas vanishing into morning clouds, terrain without discernable landmarks–making up new words as they printed each wet plate. These early nineteenth-century photographers focused, for the most part, on the West as the trope for “America” and undoubtedly considered the exploration and conquest of the “wilderness” that had to be “tamed” and “won” as a prime directive. Because it is unlikely that any of these photographers considered the ultimate fate of the Native Americans or the impact of settlement upon what was a delicate ecological system, it is important to place these later photographic projects in a larger intellectual context of cultural critique, a critique their precursors were in no position to make. During the seventies and eighties the received narratives of Manifest Destiny and the right of humans to exploit nature were being interrogated and American “history” as a history of progress was in the process of being rewritten.For American photographers the reference point for a re-examination of the making of America would be the supposedly “innocent” survey projects that resulted in the landscape paintings and photographs of the vast vistas of the Land of the Free.  The question is—what has happened to the wilderness, to the scenery, to the open spaces?  The questions were what is landscape in a post-industrial society? what is landscape in a post-atomic society? With a spirit of detachment and investigation, photographers set out on new surveys, tracing the footsteps of famous photographers into the New West, or sometimes going into dangerous territories that had been “sacrificed” to the Cold War.

For American photographers in the seventies, the reference point for a re-examination of the making of America would be the supposedly “innocent” survey projects that resulted in the landscape paintings and photographs of the vast vistas of the Land of the Free.  Their questions became, not what is on the other side of the mountains, what is around the bend of the river but what price has been paid in the name of exploration. What was the cost of settlements, what has happened to the wilderness, to the scenery, to the open spaces?  The questions were what is landscape in a post-industrial society? What is landscape when the land is carpeted with developments sprouting houses that look alike, dwellings carefully planted alongside roads and streets carved out of the desert floor? And most frighteningly, what is landscape in a post-atomic society? The works of the New Topographics photographers in America revealed that settling the West was an unfinished project. With a spirit of detachment and investigation, photographers set out on new surveys, tracing the footsteps of famous photographers into the New West to see what changes had been wrought be time. Some photographers, understanding the extent to which the West had been used as a site for testing weapons of war went into dangerous territories that had been “sacrificed” to the Cold War.

This new critical attitude towards the tradition of landscape photography was announced, not in the West, but in the East, in New York, where all things in the art world had to be announced. The New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape exhibition of  1975 at the George Eastman House in Rochester was a departure from the decades-long series of “events” in photography during which John Szarkowski (1925-2007) at the Museum of Modern Art announced a new movement or a new trend. However, it was in the provinces of Rochester, always snowed in during the winter months, that a shift in the contemporary photographic stance was announced. Writing in Aperture, Tim Davis revisited a revival and restaging of the seminal event and wrote, Even in the George Eastman House’s carpeted, chic, museumy space, New Topographics is a modest affair. The second most- cited photography show in history—after only Edward Steichen’s 1955 The Family of Man—is a tiny room hung with mostly 8-by- 10-inch black-and-white prints. The original 1975 show, curated by William Jenkins, was even sparser, hung, in current Eastman House curator Alison Nordström’s words, as a “bathtub ring” around a space that had once been George Eastman’s garage.” He ended his essay with an observation that

When you compare the most important state-sponsored photographic surveys of the nineteenth century—the Mission Héliographique in 1850s France, and the U.S. Geographical Surveys of the 1860s and ’70s—it is easy to recognize how important photography has always been in describing the American scene. Nearly everything man-made that Édouard Baldus, Henri Le Secq, and company photographed still stands intact. No human-made thing that Timothy O’Sullivan, William Henry Jackson, or Carleton E. Watkins photographed does. The American landscape is a theme park of flux, always willing to plow under its past, making photography vital in preserving it.and showed the new photographers of the new “man-altered landscape,”  such as Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz.  This show officially launched the new and critical reinvestigation of an old tradition.”

In explaining why Rochester, Doug Stockdale wrote also in 2010 in The PhotoBook Journal, “The 1975 exhibition was in Rochester, NY, which would seem off the beaten photographic path to have become such an influential exhibition. But it could be argued that thirty-five years ago, fine art photography was a much different place, with very few venues for exhibition, and just as few schools which taught fine art photography.” In 2010 the original exhibition catalog was reproduced on the occasion of a recreation of the show that toured eight institutions in far-flung cities, a testimony to the lasting importance of a very small show of one hundred sixty eight photographs by ten photographers–Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal, who was the exhibition manager, Frank Gohlke, Stephen Shore, the only photographer to use color, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott and Henry Wessel, Jr. and  Hilla and Bernd Becher. Stockdale commented, “Interesting to note that the exhibition was not attended by all of the exhibition photographers, most of the photographs included in the exhibition were self-selected by the photographers, the exhibition was not well attended and the exhibition traveled to only two other venues. Yet it seemingly had a large impact on the photographic community.” He also noted the minor distinctions among the photographers who worked in black and white: “two used 35mm film (Baltz and Wessel), three utilized medium format cameras (Adams, Deal, and Gohlke), and five utilized large format cameras (Bernd and Hilla Becher, Nixon, Schott, and Shore). I think that today, most photographers would guess that a view camera was used by all of the New Topographic photographers. All the photographers were working independent of each other, not affiliated as a group, but many knew of each other.” The forward to the new book was written by Britt Salvesen, who, according to Stockdale, made major improvements over the original exhibition documentation: “Another reason to enjoy this book is that the original published catalog with the exhibition, although now rare and expensive, is thin with regard to illustrating the photographs exhibited. The48-page catalog (edition of 2,500, original price $7.00) illustrated three photographs per exhibitor, a total of 27 photographs, if you don’t count the multiples within the Brend and Hilla Becher’s three plates versus the entire 168 works exhibited, which are included in this book. Since the majority of the prints were created on 8 x 10” paper, most of the images within this book are at actual exhibition scale.”

By the mid-seventies, these photographic explorations were well underway. In front of the cameras was an altered landscape and behind the camera was a long history of using landscape to craft an identity for the new nation. The photographers referenced their precursors, the painters Thomas Cole, George Innes, and the Western explorer Alfred Bierstadt, the photographers Timothy O’Sullivan and the sketch artist Thomas Moran, who deliberately dramatized the Western scenery which no one in the East had yet seen. Like Thomas Cole, the New Topographic photographers had seen the virgin land invaded and transformed into “altered landscapes,” like George Innes they witnessed the impact of technology. The nine American photographers knew their ancestors and set out to find them, to record and document the vanishings of these old worlds and to record the new worlds that had sprung up to take those places. “Landscape” had been re-defined as less “land” and more “scape.” But it must be pointed out that the idea of landscape that Americans inherited mainly from the British tradition depends upon the concept of the word “landscape” itself.

We tend to assume landscape refers to a verdant terrain, perhaps visited by humans who have left gentle marks upon the surface, something like a picturesque John Constable farm near the Stour River. But the original word, “landskyp” was a Dutch word that came from the German original “landschaften”  both referring, not to nature at all but to a “man-altered” site that is settled and inhabited. Therefore, it is the American mind which has romanticized landscape, far more than Willam Wordsworth or J.M.W. Turner, and transformed what was a small village setting or a bucolic farm into a transcendental frontier where the original sins could be cleansed, where one could find a new start. These artists were also relying on the viewer’s knowledge of the famous photographs of earlier photographers who photographed beautiful scenery beautifully, Ansel Adams and Edmund Weston, who aestheticized the already spectacular gifts of America. New Topographics which is based upon a straightforward dictionary definition as a science of drawing maps, of recording the features of the surface without judgment or interest. Topographics is the artless art of rendering that which exists at a given point in time. A “landskyp” in other words.

The “landscape” is now suburbia, photographed laconically, in color, by William Eggelston or with an etched acidity in black and white by Lewis Baltz.  They follow in the footsteps of Arbus, as well, taking up her quest for the odd and the strange in the midst the normal and every day, simply by framing and photographing this newly-made world of prefabricated landscape. Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz focused on suburban settlements isolated in wide territories and Peter Goin, Richard Misrach, and John Pfahl photographed nuclear test sites in the West, still radioactive. These are the Sacrifice Zones. The New Topographic movement can be divided into three moments, all of which come from similar impulses, but none of which are deeply connected: the work in Germany by Hilla and Bernd Becher, the original American artists of the 1975 exhibition itself, and the highly political artists who traversed the ruined and devastated regions destroyed by atomic testing and weapons development in the West. The next posts will explore the new objectivity and new documentation of the “land” in the post-war period: New Topographics.


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