- "New Topographics":Locating Epistemological Concerns in the American Landscape
In 1975, a show opened at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, that would cause a significant stir in the established art world. The ten young photographers whose work was featured described themselves as landscape photographers, but they rejected the picturesque, romanticizing, and purportedly human-free landscapes of their immediate forebears, epitomized by the work of Ansel Adams. Instead they photographed everything that had previously been cropped out of American landscape photographs: the "spaces in between," such as parking lots, industrial buildings, grain elevators, tract developments, shopping malls, freeway underpasses, and the like. Curator William Jenkins named the show "New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape," and the group of photographers became known, too, as the New Topographics. [End Page 151]
Thirty-four years later, the George Eastman House and the Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, have re-created the historic show, which opened at the George Eastman House in the summer of 2009 and moved to LACMA in the fall, before continuing on to Tucson, San Francisco, and several venues in Europe. The show at LACMA, curated by Edward Robinson, consisted of five large rooms filled with photographs and a sixth room that housed a video projection and a selection of books related to the exhibition. Two-thirds of the photographs from the original exhibition were displayed; as in the original show, they were matted and framed simply and at a modest scale, most of the images not more than eight by ten inches in dimension. All but one (Stephen Shore) of the ten photographers' work was in black and white, and most of the images were hung individually, on roughly the same horizontal plane.
The simple presentation—combined with the photographers' deliberately evenhanded treatment of their apparently mundane subject matter—was so unassuming as to be confounding and even offensive to some of the show's first visitors in the 1970s: "Look at this picture, I just … why? What is he trying to show?" one visitor complained, who further castigated the pictures as "dull and flat," and stated that "I just don't like this at all."1
Despite—or perhaps because of—the deeply mixed reactions to the 1975 show, the New Topographics has since served as a distinctive influence in landscape art, photography, urban studies, and geography. In 1985, critic Deborah Bright, while critiquing the overwhelmingly male makeup of the New Topographics show, asserted that perhaps no exhibition and catalog were more influential on the course of landscape photography.2 In Eastman House curator Allison Nordstrom's assessment:
New Topographics appeared on the cusp of the great late-twentieth-century paradigm shift that saw photography turn from an isolated specialist practice to a widely accepted and highly desirable art world phenomenon. The exhibition, however important, should not be understood as an initiator of this great change but as a symptom of it. Its ideas, as those who were present are quick to remind us, were in the air, and the community of people who would engage with those ideas was flourishing. Perceptively identified and assembled, creatively named, and fortuitously shared, New Topographics became not only what it was in 1975, but what it has been since.3
Schools of thought that could...