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The New Topographics was the name of a exhibit of ten photographers that occurred in 1975 at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York.  I was still in high school when the show occurred, and I wasn’t into either art or photography, so its occurrence passed my notice.  I first heard about the show in 1982 or 1983 when another photographer mentioned the show as some kind of legendary event, and that the catalogue was very hard to come by, maybe the first time I ever realized that photography books might be collectable objects.  I had just started collecting photography books, back before the internet, when you might find almost anything in a used bookstore, but I never found a copy.  Then in 2000 a copy came up on e-bay–I had no idea what the book might be worth, the current bid was something like $20 when I first saw the item—so I set my wristwatch alarm, sniped a last second bid and won the book for $51.

The book itself was a bit of puzzle—it was obviously a catalog for a museum exhibit, cheaply printed, with an essay that talked about the photographs in terms of style—not of substance.  The rest of the catalog contained three images by each of the ten photographers included in the show, a thin selection in most cases, unsatisfyingly short for photographers I knew and respected, (Robert Adams, Stephen Shore, Lewis Baltz, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, Joe Deal, and Bernd and Hilla Beecher) and annoyingly incomplete for the one photographer I had never heard of—John Schott.    I put the book on the shelf, and mostly have been impressed by subsequent sales since then—up to $1800, never less than $340—beats the hell out of the stock market…

The new “New Topographics”, printed by Steidel, is both much more satisfying and much more annoying than the original.  The more satisfying part is the inclusion of many more well printed images from each of the individual photographers, allowing the viewer a sense of the zeitgeist of the time—both in the landscape, and in the way the photographers approached it.  One of the annoying aspects, though, is that the image selection in the book is still less than the images in the 1975 show—I’m not quite sure why that bothers me—except that I missed the show the first time around, and deleting images from the book seems like I’m missing the full effect this time around, too…  I must admit, I counted images deleted from each of the photographers this time—almost like the editorial staff rationed the pain, mostly cutting everybody back to 15 images except the biggest cuts were from Stephen Shore (but lately he’s been publishing a lot from this pre-1975 body of work—maybe we really don’t need to see those images republished again…).

Perhaps worth noting is that 1975 was the year that Ansel Adams was on the ascendancy—several years before, he had announced that he would stop taking print orders at the end of 1975—his work was becoming famous, and smart buyers were streaming into his gallery and buying prints directly from the man himself.   And Walker Evans, the most direct predecessor of most of these artists, died on April 10, in relative obscurity.   By 1975, Lewis Baltz had published “The New Industrial Parks of Irvine, California” (1974), and Robert Adams had published “The New West” (1974)—their reputations were already made,  and many critics were already savaging their work.

It is perhaps worth comparing the reprinted New Topographics  with Walker Evans & Company, published in 2000, twenty five years after the show.  This book includes work by most of the New Topographics photographers, plus many others, all working in the spirit of Walker Evans.  This book feels somehow more complete, but also shows that the work of the New Topographics artists did not arise from a complete vacuum—Walker Evans had been there before, and defined a style of photography that embraced the vernacular landscape, that attempted to hide the viewpoint of the photographer with a style so straightforward that it seemed to be no style at all.   The best of the New Topographics artists have continued to refine and update this way of making photographs—but it is hard to argue that they invented it out of nothing.

Maybe the New Topographics label stuck so that it was possible to talk about landscape in a way that avoided the unreal exaggerations marketed as art—that embraced the place we live.  And for a long time, they were the losers—the Ghost Dancers.  Robert Adams perhaps described them when he wrote “Might we somehow learn the hope of the Plains Indians who… danced the Ghost Dance, their final celebration of their dream of the land’s restoration?  The ceremonies were often held, judging by the images we have, in scrappy pastures right at the edge of their enemies’ contempt.” –maybe that was the spirit of the “New Topographics” show.

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