Part 2 of 3
Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape
“The world is going to pieces and people like Adams and Weston are photographing rocks!”
It's a very rare moment in art when a single exhibition changes the course of art history and create an entire new way of looking at the world. In 1975 an exhibition at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York did just that. The show was curated by William Jenkins and displayed around one hundred and sixty-eight mostly black and white photographs in uniform sizes from ten photographers. The exhibition was far from beautiful, and far from accepted. At the time it was shown it's reception was poor. The initial response of viewers was that the photographs were too uniform and cold. However, it was this very exhibition that changed the way we see the landscape, in particular the man made landscape, and it helped to legitimize a new theme in fine art photography, the banal. The exhibition showed the American landscape in the sixty's and seventy's and how urbanization and industrialization were forever changing the landscape in which we live. It was titled the New Topographics.
Tired of Ansel Adam's almost propagandist landscape photography, this new group of photographers wanted to represent the landscape that they saw. They didn't want to take a political position as Adam's had done, but rather they wanted to simply document the places in which they lived. They took a very neutral stance with their photography. Using primarily the middle ground as the main focal point of the images, whereas Adams used the distant background and foreground to establish grandiosity, this group of artist created stable documentarian photographs.
Stephen Shore was the only artist to be included into the show that worked in color. While this made his work stick out, his style of shooting and subject choices fit perfectly with the other artists.
Henry Wessel, Jr.
Bernd and Hilla Becher
The German couple Bernd and Hilla Becher were the only artist that were not from America to be included in the show. They were chosen to be a part of this exhibition for their neutral approach to their subject matter. They would pick an architectural theme, such as water towers, and then travel and photograph every structure they found that fit in with the style and shaper they were looking for. They would use the same composition, similar weather, and time of day to produce an almost anthropological study of the structures that our societies build, what functions they serve, and how they effect our visual landscapes.
Questions for the Reader:
Do you feel that the artists in this exhibition truly accomplished this neutrality that they sought to create? Or do you see a biased opinion of their landscape coming out of their photographs?
- A question that this exhibition brought up was whether or not photographs of the banal should be made and considered fine art? The surrealist believed that if art was not beautiful it should not be made. In your opinion does the work of these photographs hold merit? Do you find their photographs to be more than just neutral banal documents of western American life, are they beautiful in their own unique way?
- The New Topographics bring into question what the role of the photographer should entitle. Is the photographer someone who should present a new vision for the world as a place that the photographer would like to see the world become? Such as Adam's camp. Was the job of the photographer to hold up a mirror to society and simply document it in a neutral fashion? Such as in the New Topographics Camp. Or is the photographer meant to change the state of the world and challenge the current paradigms? The more contemporary approach to landscape photography. We will be looking at this last ideal next month in the third part of this landscape discussion.