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Tag Archives: New Topographics

I’ve been meaning to write a blog post on a question I’ve been asking myself for years—why photograph landscapes?—only to discover that the job has been done already, splendidly, by Frank Gohlke, in his book Thoughts on Landscape:  Collected Writings and Interviews.  The book was apparently published in 2009, and I bought a copy several months ago, picked it up briefly after it arrived, but didn’t really begin to read it until a few days ago, when I took it along for light reading on a long plane ride.  The book (like many such collections of essays) is arranged chronologically, which provides the editor with a simple structure for ordering the book, but doesn’t necessarily provide the reader with an easy entry into the book—but I found the book coming alive with the interview with Mary Virginia Swanson (particularly the discussion about the New Topographics show), and suggest that as a better entry into the book.

Frank Gohlke--Grain Elevator, From "Measure of Emptiness, 1992"

Gohlke defines landscape as “a human creation, even when the only interaction involved is the act of perception” (page 140), and quotes JB Jackson’s dismissal of our national parks as “just scenery”.   He goes on to note that “In other times and places, there has been a real conversation between people and the landscape they occupied; what people did, the kinds of places they created, had something to do with the messages they received from their surroundings about the effects of actions already taken.  It was important to know what the place needed and to provide it.  Somewhere along the road to civilization, important groups of people forgot or unlearned the trick of how to listen to those messages.  The process has accelerated dramatically, some would say catastrophically, since the Industrial Revolution, so that often the only message we’ve been interested in is the one that tells us how much force will be required to impose our wishes on resistant material.  I would like to suggest that one function of landscape art in the late 20th century is to help restore that lost faculty, if nothing else, by providing examples of careful listening.”  (page 179)

Frank Gohlke, Mount St. Helens

Gohlke’s own work has been published (although his output of monographs is modest compared to Friedlander or Robert Adams), in “Measure of Emptiness:  Grain Elevators in the American Landscape” and “Mount St. Helens”.  These books are notable in part for the long gestation periods between the making of the photographs and their publication—15 years in both cases—giving some weight to the argument that perhaps new is not necessarily better.  The grain elevator project deals mostly with great spaces, and the human occupation of the great lands of the American west, while the Mt. Saint Hellens work documents a natural disaster on a grand scale, but is presented as perhaps the only way of imagining the destruction that could be unleashed by a nuclear holocaust.

I’ve been staring at the Pond for more than 20 years, ever since I found a discarded review copy at the Strand in New York, cheap (dust jacket more than slightly battered), and I am still unable to say why the book charms me so completely.  The landscape these photographs were made in feels used and seedy, many of the individual images seem jarring, the selective focus seems pointless and pretentious.  But matched against this seemingly irrelevant content was a beautifully produced book—elegant printing, thick paper, lovely book cloth—and hidden under a prime contender for the ugliest dust jacket ever made was a lovely silver print (it took me years to find it).  And while the current reviewers act like John Gossage was part of the New Topographics movement, it is certainly worth noting that he was, in fact, excluded from this group in 1975, and that the publication of the Pond in 1985 might have been an attempt to snub that movement as well as the more traditional predecessors in the landscape.  After all, this book seems like a turning away from the broader landscape, a furtive escape into pathways suitable for drug dealers and child molesters, precisely the opposite of an attempt to describe a larger space.


John Gossage, The Pond


Looking at the book now, what strikes me is how the book both documents the ubiquitous damage we inadvertently do to in the interstitial spaces in our landscape, but also shows the beauty of these places, especially notable in the spring, when the images in the book were made.  There is comfort that the path of the book leads home—maybe not the suburban home of the American dream, but one on a quiet, safe street, nice enough.


John Gossage, The Pond


The new and improved “The Pond” has three new pictures, a thicker dust jacket with an inverted color scheme (though equally jarring), thicker boards under an even more lush book cloth, thicker paper,  and better printing.  The three new images don’t really change the feel of the book at all (I suspect they were put there for fools like me, just to get me to shell out the price of the new printing)—and the pictures are just as frustratingly obtuse as before.


John Gossage, The Pond


And Gossage’s lovely essay—a page ripped from Thoreau’s Walden (maybe even from the edition I read repeatedly while in high school) with every word crossed out except for “The Pond”—retains the feeling of a found fragment, an act of violation against both literature and the landscape—but also a celebration of what is left—this path is still worth walking, this pond is still worth photographing, and this book is still worth having and reading.

A few days ago, West by West by Joe Deal arrived in the mail.  I’ve been aware of Joe Deal for nearly as long as I’ve been a photographer, mostly because of his inclusion in the “New Topographs” show in 1975, but also because the handful of images of his I saw revealed a clarity and precision of vision unique to his work.   The 1992 publication of Southern California Photographs 1976-1986 seemed both a bit late (the art world seemed to have moved on to other topics by then), but powerful and authoritative, proof that Joe was the real Deal.

Joe Deal Wash, Red Hills, 2007

The new work, West by West, displays the same clarity and precision, though this time the topography he explores is not new, but as old as the hills.  The subject of these photographs is the natural landscape of the Great Plains.   Each photograph includes a foreground, usually of grass, a horizon placed near the center of the frame, and a sky above—but each image is alive with light and shadow, and ultimately the subject becomes the space and the silence.  There are no roads and no fences in these photographs (there are a few ruts in the grass), and the sense of unbroken space evokes memories of wilderness before parks were necessary.  One feels that you could walk forever in silence into these pictures.

Joe Deal Sunlight and Shadow, Missouri Plateau, 2005

In the introductory essay, Deal writes of his memory of his childhood, growing up in Kansas, traveling through these spaces in the family car.  The photographs in this book were made between 2005 and 2007, but his death in June 2010 from cancer at age 62 brings a poignancy to this work:  did he know when he made this work that the end was near?  I don’t know.  But there is comfort in these images, in the survival of the space, in the silence, in care and love with which he shows us this landscape.

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.