New Topographics

In 1975 an exhibition of photographs was shown at the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, Rochester, New York. Curated by William Jenkins the exhibition featured the work of photographers; Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore and Henry Wessel jnr.

The photographs shown in the exhibition were drawn from the photographers ongoing projects and included photographs of suburban expansion around Colorado from Robert Adams’ New West series, small warehouse type buildings from Lewis Baltz’s series New Industrial Parks, near Irvine California (1974-75), Frank Gohlke’s pictures of small town stores and parking lots, colour photographs from Stephen Shore’s American road trip and the Becher’s typological studies of industrial buildings.

Henry Wessel, Jr. (American, b. 1942) HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA, 1972 George Eastman House collections. © 1973 Henry Wessel

At the time the exhibition received little critical attention however it has come to be seen as a crucial moment in defining documentary photography’s engagement with the contemporary urban condition. Part of the New Topographics long standing influence is that the exhibition served as an important litmus test of the influence of wider thinking about the changing nature of the city, landscape and urbanisation. By the mid 1970s the idea of landscape was one in which the central importance of man’s intervention and management was firmly addressed across a number of professional, academic and popular discussions. In its broadest application the concept of landscape had come to represent thinking about the very world in which we live.

This growing interest in the realities of land use was paralleled by investigations into city life and urban development from architects, urbanists and an emerging cultural landscape movement. In the US this interest focussed both on the broad changes in human activity as much as detailed investigations into the main streets, back alleys and parking lots of America. This interest underpinned the ongoing publication of journals such as Landscape as much as the research of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown’s Las Vegas Studio.

Other influences were equally important in shaping the subsequent critical reactions to the New Topographics. These included a growing focus on the use of photography by conceptual artists such as Ed Ruscha as well as the emerging practices of land art and a growing environmental consciousness. This process was of course not just a one-way street. Ruscha had already published a number of artist photo books such as Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963) and Thirty Four Parking Lots (1965). His books had influenced both Lewis Baltz and Stephen Shore and was himself similarly influenced by the work of photographers such as Walker Evans and Robert Frank. He had also produced the project of photographing Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966) and this work had significantly influenced Venturi and Scott-Brown.

The New Topographics exhibition put a name to a moment in the development of the featured photographers and provided an important document to ideas that were ‘in the air’. This accounts in part for its continued importance. So too the fact that it was organised at a time when there was a considerable cross fertilisation of ideas between documentary realism, conceptual art and architectural research.

Robert Adams (American, b. 1937) TRACT HOUSING, NORTH GLENN AND THORNTON, COLORADO, 1973. George Eastman House collections. © Robert Adams, courtesy of Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York

The photographs, original catalogue and essay by William Jenkins have been continuously debated at the critical level as well as informing the approach of a range of photographers working since the 1970s. Photographers influenced by the new topographical approach include Gabriele Basilico, John Davies, Axel Hütte and Andreas Gursky amongst others. The latter two were students of the Bechers and have become known as part of the Düsseldorf Tendency, after the Kunstakademie where the Bechers’ taught.

Against this background the New Topographics exhibition has been re-staged by the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona and the George Eastman House International Museum. The new exhibition features over 100 of the original 168 photographs and is currently touring the US, moving to Europe in November 2010 (see all exhibition dates below). This important re-staging will allow the original works to be viewed together for the first time since 1975.

One reason for the continued influence of the original exhibition rests with the printed catalogue. Although originally it was only a modest publication with 27 reproductions, it still allowed a far greater number of people to access the work. For all of the New Topographics photographers, book publication has been central to their documentary and artistic outlook. Indeed the photo book remains a seminal medium to reach a wider audience today.

Photographic publishers Steidl have produced a beautifully printed large book to accompany the touring exhibition. The new book greatly expands the number of reproductions and also includes a facsimile copy of the original catalogue, a checklist of all photographs that did feature in the original show and essays by Britt Salvesen and Alison Nordström. The original catalogue only had a small print run and has long had the status of a rare book. Steidl’s new publication allows the images to be put back into circulation and may also provide a possible point of departure for new discussions amongst photographers, architects and urbanists on the important relationship between documentary photography and urban thinking.

At its centre the New Topographics had an interest in the man made world. Writing in the introduction to the Bechers later Water Towers (1988) book, the late critic, Reyner Banham referenced not only the concept of the New Topographics but the human creativity it documented stating; “The moment the eye lingers on any single image …they are seen to stand in the real world, in man managed environments. …We are looking here at a record–all to often ignored–of human creativity so multifarious, determined, and persistent.”

Thirty five years on this is as good a reason to be interested in the work of the New Topographics photographers as it was when they were first making their excursions into the landscapes of the American everyday.

Book and Exhibition details.

New Topographics:Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape premiered at the George Eastman House (June 13–October 4, 2009).

The exhibition will tour to San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (July 17–October 3, 2010); Landesgalerie Linz, Austria (November 10, 2010–January 9, 2011); Photographische Sammlung Stiftung Kultur, Cologne (January 27–April 3, 2011); Nederlands Fotomuseum Rotterdam, the Netherlands (July 2–September 11, 2011); Bilbao Fine Arts Museum, Bilbao (November 2011–January 2012).

New Topographics is published by Steidl & Partners with essays by Britt Salvesen and Alison Nordström.

Book design by Michael Mack and Joby Ellis

b/w and color plates throughout, 256 pages. 30 cm x 24 cm

An edited version of this review was published in the April 2010 issue of Blueprint magazine


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