Jonathan Miller writing about the book in the Independent
the capacity to resolve fine detail is confined to a surprisingly small area of the retina, the fovea, around which visual acuity falls off so steeply that it’s impossible to take in the details of a whole scene at a single glance. Try fixing your eyes on the last word of this sentence and see how difficult it is to read the surrounding text. The result of this restricted acuity is that our perception of the visual world has to be assembled in discrete installments. Although we are not explicitly aware of doing so we are constantly flicking our gaze from one part of the visual field to the next, and by bringing the specialised centre of the retina to bear on one sector of the scene after another we collect an anthology of sporadic snapshots from which we build up an apparently detailed picture of the world around us.
Some early women photographers did do serious topographical work in the late nineteenth and early 20C:
Frances Benjamin Johnson
Elizabeth Ellen Roberts
Artistic photography, continuing the ‘genteel’ occupations for lady sketchers and watercolourists, was also conducted by:
Julia Margaret Cameron
Lady Elizabeth Eastlake
But their work was more closely aligned with the family album, documentary and performance, rather topographic. (ibid, p.188).
Feminist discourse since the 1970s has rejected the monopoly of the male gaze and articulated the female point of view in relation to the landscape. Social and technological developments have also made serious photographic excursions into the landscape considerably more accessible (Wells, 2011, p.189). A number of female photographers have, in one form or another, engaged with feminist politics in relation to the landscape and the concept of nature, as well as the male gaze.
For interesting feminist and other modern approaches see:
Helen Sear’s series Grounded (2000), in which she digitally combines photographs of skies with images of animal hides photographed at a museum.
Jo Spence subverts classical depictions of nude female figures within idealised settings.
Joan Fontcuberta Bodyscapes (2005) employ three-dimensional imaging software used for military applications to render landscape images of close-up photographs of his own body.
Jo Spence (1934–92) had a highly politicised approach to photography, creating photographs that run counter to the idealised imagery offered by advertising. Spence often worked collaboratively and sought alternative distribution models, laminating work for durability and renting out her photography to conferences, libraries, universities and public spaces to broaden its audience. She also documented her own struggles with cancer.
‘Putting Myself in the Picture’ (Camden Press 1986) brought together her raw and confessional works to inspire a younger generation of photographers. Remodelling Photo History (1982) a series of self-portraits in collaboration with Terry Dennett. The work consists of a series of diptychs where two photographs of Spence are juxtaposed. In some pairs, the first is a parody of a more traditional pictorial image; the second shot is less conventionally framed and the irony is articulated with less subtlety.
‘Victimisation’ “Here we see that the estate will not admit trespass, and that it stands in for the heroic (male) defender of the ground, repelling weak opposition at its border. Jo Spence failed to cross the barrier, allowing the absent landowner (through his gate and sign) to become hero, male, the creator of difference… her mockery diminishes the victory won by the landowner.” (John Taylor 1994, p.282 quoted Alexander p133)
“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 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.
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:
Brassaï (1899-1984) was a Hungarian-born French photographer who created countless iconic images of 1920s Parisian life.
He moved to Paris in 1924, working as a journalist and joined a circle of Hungarian artists and writers. His seminal book Paris de Nuit (Paris by Night 1933) documented the nightlife of prostitutes, street cleaners, and other scenes in his neighborhood of Montparnasse.
He also documented high society, including the ballet, opera, and intellectuals—among them his friends and contemporaries, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Alberto Giacometti, and Henri Matisse. He was also interested in graffiti, seeing it as a form of Outsider Art that could open the door for new artistic expression.
His black and white images are very dark and moody with large areas of clipped black with rim lighting have influenced my work in Assignment 2.1 Bridge.
Hiroshi Sugimoto is a contemporary Japanese photographer, born in 1948 and dividing his time between Japan and New York. His use of an 8×10 large-format camera and extremely long exposures have given Sugimoto a reputation as a photographer of the highest technical ability. He has spoken of his work as an expression of ‘time exposed’, or photographs serving as a time capsule for a series of events in time. His work focuses on transience of life, and the conflict between life and death. A lot of his work also relates to scientific concepts – electricity and origins of life and visual forms from mathematical formulae. His work has been a key inspiration for by black and white photography in:
2.2.1 Bridge where in my treatment of the bridge shapes I am inspired by the dramatic black white contrasts of his Conceptual Forms and Joe, and his work on the branching forms of electricity has influenced my working of the algae and other textures.
[Photography is] a kind of contrivance to externalize my internal vision. The world exists and so do I. But does the world exist as I see it? It may be that each individual is seeing the world differently. And all share the same fantasy of how this world should look like.
Thousands of years of history are in me.
We see what must be seen. Then disappear into the sea.
‘Capitalism won’t stop until we have depleted all resources….my work hopefully gives us an opportunity to think before destroying ourselves’
He works in series projects. The images that have been most influential on my own work are those that are highly abstract, dealing with light, dark and time as a way of making us think about life and our place in a fragile world in an immediate and haunting way.
The series that have been most influential on my own work are those that are highly abstract, dealing with light and time as a way of making us think about life and our place in a fragile world.
The seascapes are a series of very large black and white prints all have the same middle horizon line. These images have inspired my reworking of:
So very commonplace are these substances, they hardly attract attention―and yet they vouchsafe our very existence…Let’s just say that there happened to be a planet with water and air in our solar system, and moreover at precisely the right distance from the sun for the temperatures required to coax forth life. While hardly inconceivable that at least one such planet should exist in the vast reaches of universe, we search in vain for another similar example. Mystery of mysteries, water and air are right there before us in the sea. Every time I view the sea, I feel a calming sense of security, as if visiting my ancestral home; I embark on a voyage of seeing.
Their minimalist abstraction and meditative impact has been compared to that of Rothko’s paintings – but strangely the painting appear more ‘realistic’ than the photographs.
In this series he is at his most minimalist: ‘horizontality’, verticality and diagonals of Angst. With dramatic, eerie splashes of light.
For a long time it was my job to stand on cliffs and gaze at the sea, the horizon where it touches the sky. The horizon is not a straight line, but a segment of a great arc. One day, standing atop a lone island peak in a remote sea, the horizon encompassing my entire field of vision, for a moment I was floating in the centre of a vast basin. But then, as I viewed the horizon encircle me, I had a distinct sensation of the earth as a watery globe, a clear vision of the horizon not as an endless expanse but the edge of an oceanic sphere…There remains… a great divide between comprehending (i.e. explaining) the world and being able to explain what we ourselves are. And even then, what we can explain of the world is far less than what we cannot ― though people tend be more attracted by the unexplained. In all this, I somehow feel we are nearing an era when religion and art will once again cast doubts upon science, or else an era when things better seen through to a scientific conclusion will bow to religious judgement.
Joe and Conceptual Forms
Like a work of architecture, this sculpture has to be experienced by walking around and through it… Joe is different according to the time of the day, the season, and the viewer’s position. It is in the visitor’s memory that the sculpture “takes shape” in the most complete way…Using a photographic technique involving areas of extremely soft light and blurred darkness, he sculpted views that seem like aspects of visual memory: the arts of photography and sculpture overlap and memories of the two-and the three-dimensional mix.
The idea of observing the effects of electrical discharges on photographic dry plates reflects my desire to re-create the major discoveries of these scientific pioneers in the darkroom and verify them with my own eyes. His process is discussed in detail in
I decided to trace the beginnings of our age via architecture. Pushing my old large-format camera’s focal length out to twice-infinity―with no stops on the bellows rail, the view through the lens was an utter blur―I discovered that superlative architecture survives, however dissolved, the onslaught of blurred photography. Thus I began erosion-testing architecture for durability, completely melting away many of the buildings in the process.
People in olden times were apparently less fearful and grievous of death than we are today. To some it was even an honour to be chosen by the gods as a sacrificial victim, a liberation from the sufferings and strife of this life…Must we moderns be so sheltered from death?
!! to update with my own detailed thoughts on Land, The Edge of the Land and Our Forbidden Land as I critique my own work in Assignment 5.
Fay Godwin (17 February 1931 – 27 May 2005) was a British photographer known for her black-and-white landscapes of the British countryside and coast. Her approach was very intuitive and felt that images where she had thought too deeply about composition and meaning had less ‘visceral’ power as a response to what she was seeing.
She was self-taught and her obsession with photography started with family photos and producing photo albums for neighbours. produced portraits and documentary work of factory workers. Much of the emotional charge of her images she attributes to difficulties in her personal life: traumatic marriage break-up, cancer and struggles to support her children that led her to throw herself into her work. She produced portraits of writers and also documentary work on factory workers. But it is for her landscape photography that she is best known.
Landscape photography and activism
She was a very vocal critic of the ‘picturesque’ and her photographs aim to capture landscapes as they really are with all their historical, social and political complexity.
“I am wary of picturesque pictures. I get satiated with looking at postcards in local newsagents and at the picture books that are on sale, many of which don’t bear any relation to my own experience of the place… The problem for me about these picturesque pictures, which proliferate all over the place, is that they are a very soft warm blanket of sentiment, which covers everybody’s idea about the countryside… It idealises the country in a very unreal way.” (Fay Godwin 1986 South Bank Show Produced and directed by Hilary Chadwick, London Weekend Television quoted Alexander 2013 p84.)
She combined her landscape photography with environmental activism against the ravages of 1980s Thatcherism and as President of the Ramblers’ Association.
Rebecca the Lurcher. 1973
The Oldest Road: An Exploration of the Ridgeway. 1975. With J.R.L. Anderson.
Remains of Elmet. Rainbow Press, 1979. With poems by Ted Hughes.
Remains of Elmet. Faber and Faber, 1979. ISBN 9780571278763.
Elmet. Faber and Faber, 1994. With new additional poems and photographs.
Remains of Elmet. Faber and Faber, 2011. ISBN 9780571278763.
The Saxon Shore Way. Hutchinson (publisher), 1983. With Alan Sillitoe. ISBN 0091514606.
Land. Heinemann, 1985. With John Fowles. ISBN 0434303054.
!!Edge of the Land
Glassworks & Secret Lives. 1999. ISBN 0953454517.
Landmarks. Stockport: Dewi Lewis, 2002. ISBN 1-899235-73-6. With an introduced by Simon Armitage and an essay by Roger Taylor.