“New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape” was curated by William Jenkins at the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House (Rochester, New York) in January 1975. In his introduction to the catalogue, Jenkins defined the common denominator of the show as “a problem of style:” “stylistic anonymity”, an alleged absence of style.
The exhibition was a reaction to the idealised landscape photography of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston and was influenced by Ed Ruscha who, in the 60s, had made a series of artist’s books with self-explanatory titles such as Twentysix Gasoline Stations, Some Los Angeles Apartments, Every Building on the Sunset Strip and Walker Evans, who had photographed the vernacular iconography of America in road signs, billboards, motels and shop.
“The pictures were stripped of any artistic frills and reduced to an essentially topographic state, conveying substantial amounts of visual information but eschewing entirely the aspects of beauty, emotion and opinion,.” “[…] rigorous purity, deadpan humor and a casual disregard for the importance of the images.” Technically, half the photographers were working with 8″×10″; (20 cm × 25 cm) large format view cameras; those who were not were using either square medium format (Deal, Gohlke), or in the case of Baltz, 35 mm Technical Pan, a slow and high-definition Kodak film that the photographer printed on 8″x10″ paper. Only Baltz and Wessel were using regular 35 mm cameras and film. A notable element of the show was that the artists were, or would be, linked with higher education as students, professors, or both—a change from the preceding generations.The shift from craft or self-teaching to academia had somewhat been started by photographers such as Ansel Adams and Minor White, but the new generation was turning away from the approach of these forebears. This was illustrated by the subject matter that the New Topographics chose as well as their commitment to casting a somewhat ironic or critical eye on what American society had become. They all depicted urban or suburban realities under changes in an allegedly detached approach. In most cases, they gradually revealed themselves as coming from rather critical vantage points, especially Robert Adams, Baltz, and Deal.
The show consisted of 168 rigorously formal, black-and-white prints of streets, warehouses, city centres, industrial sites and suburban houses. Taken collectively, they seemed to posit an aesthetic of the banal. …Their stark, beautifully printed images of this mundane but oddly fascinating topography was both a reflection of the increasingly suburbanised world around them, and a reaction to the tyranny of idealised landscape photography that elevated the natural and the elemental.
The prints were in a 20 cm × 25 cm (8″×10″) format except for Joe Deal (32 cm × 32 cm), Gohlke (24 cm × 24 cm – close enough to 8”×10”), and the Bechers with typical European (for the time) 30 cm × 40 cm prints.
However despite their similarities, there were significant differences between the photographers in their reactions to, and portrayal of, the suburban environment and their political conclusions on responses to it.
See Greg Foster-Price and John Rohrbach ‘Re-framing the New Topographics’ 2013 University of Chicago Press
Robert Adams: disappearing wildernesses, pointed his camera at eerily empty streets, pristine trailer parks, rows of standardised tract houses, the steady creep of suburban development in all its regulated uniformity.
Lewis Baltz: stark photographs of the walls of office buildings and warehouses on industrial sites in Orange County.
Nicholas Nixon: innercity development: skyscrapers that dwarfed period buildings, freeways, gridded streets and the palpable unreality of certain American cities in which pedestrians seem like interlopers.
Stephen Shore : shot in colour. It seemed to heighten the sense of detachment in his photographs of anonymous intersections and streets.
Henry Wessel, Jr
Bernd and Hilla Becher: stark images of Pennsylvania salt mines and giant coal breakers were as coolly architectural as their images of German cooling towers and industrial plants. The suggestion was that there was something determinedly European about this new American gaze.
Ecological citizenship and automobility
The works in different ways question our responsibility in relation to the natural environment. Taken at a time of rapid environmental change, commercialisation and often homogenised destruction of the natural wilderness romanticised by Ansel Adams, they aim to promote a sense of responsibility for what Robert Adams calls the ‘half wilderness’.
There is a general concern with the homogenisation and also isolation of much of modern construction and urban sprawl. Roads that cut of and surround dwellings that can only be accessed by cars.
They differ in their approaches to technological advances like the reliance on the motor car. For Shore and Schott however there is more of a celebration of the accessibility and democratisation of life. Shore in particular celebrates the colour and vibrancy of cities and parking lots.
‘Shore’s images may be seen as ignoring environmental degradation…Yet his photographs encourage a sense of wonder and appreciation, even in the most familiar, most mundane spaces’.
There is thus a core message of the exhibition as a whole: we need to notice and appreciate what is around us in the ‘semi-wilderness’ and make sure we preserve and protect what is valuable in it. In terms of human colour and nature. Not relegate ‘conservation’ to an ever-shrinking small protected area of idealised wilderness. It is all important.
The exhibition was recreated in various locations: in 1981, six years after its original presentation, it was shown in reduced form at the Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol, UK, under the auspices of Paul Graham and Jem Southam. A large scale presentation of the exhibition was organized in 2009 at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson. “New Topographics” began an international tour in 2009, with stagings at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In 2011 the exhibition was on view at the Nederlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam, Netherlands, and later at the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum in Spain.
Baltz, Gohlke, and Shore were later commissioned by the French government for the Mission de la DATAR.
The exhibition was very influential in the subsequent developments in both US and European landscape photography, including the work of Andreas Gursky, Paul Graham, Candida Höfe and Donovan Wylie. See the following interviews with LA photographers discussing how they have been influenced by the photographers at the exhibition: