New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape opened yesterday at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and runs through October 3, 2010 along with the companion exhibit, Picturing Modernity. I visited the museum yesterday, and really enjoyed the show. I’ve spent quite a bit of time with the superb New Topographics book — viewing the actual prints was exciting.
Most of the exhibition contains small silver gelatin black and white prints with an open, low/medium contrast style of printing that is befitting of the subject matter. A few of the Lewis Baltz prints are a notable exception, with very deep blacks and stark high contrast printing. Stephen Shore’s photos are the only color images in the show.
Seeing the Joe Deal aerial subdivision views all together on the wall gave them a lot more weight than in the book. There is so much tension in not having any sky or horizon line. My eye wants to see something in the image as the horizon, which gives an off-kilter feeling to some of the images.
Finding a photographic approach that deferred and complexified meaning rather than specifying it, is what made these pictures interesting to me. — John Schott
John Schott’s work was also better on the wall than in the book. His accompanying audio segment is especially poignant. I’m still puzzling out how Nicholas Nixon’s Boston rooftop images fit into the show – they’re dense with the detail of the city skyline. Gohlke’s irrigation canal image is a deceivingly simple image that reflects the man vs. nature theme of the show so well with the beautiful sky and reflection balanced by weeds and tire tracks in the mud.
After seeing large prints of the Becher’s Industrial Landscapes a few years ago, the smaller prints in this show seemed lackluster, and a few are in need of conservation. This re-staging of the 1975 exhibit really shows the modest scale of the prints in the current era of giant 10 foot prints that are trying to compete with painting. After spending a considerable amount of time contemplating these intimate black and white prints, the large scale of the work in the Fisher Collection seemed rather ostentatious at times. Perhaps you’ll want to save that exhibition for another day.
Tip: Pick up the free audio tour to the left of the staircase as you walk into the museum. The New Topographics exhibit features about 2 minutes of commentary from most of the photographers.
Books from the Photographers in New Topographics
The New Topographics book is outstanding. Published by Steidl this year, the title seems to regularly go in and out of stock with each press run. I recommend reading the essays before seeing the show. The reproduction of the original catalog in the book is very cool. Below is a selected book list of photographers in the show, some with brief commentary. If there are photographers in the show that you’d like to investigate further, hopefully this list will save you some time.
- Summer Nights, Walking — night photography of Colorado in the 1970′s.
- Why People Photograph — a highly recommended book of inspiring essays on photography.
- The New West: Landscapes Along the Colorado Front Range
- What We Bought: The New World: Scenes from the Denver Metropolitan Area, 1970-1974
- The New Industrial Parks Near Irvine, California — The hardback from 2001 is about $45. A paperback re-issue is scheduled for later this year.
- Nevada 1977 — really looking forward to this one.
Bernd and Hilla Becher
- Industrial Landscapes — my favorite of the Becher books, these images show more of the surrounding landscape than the typologies.
- Bernd and Hilla Becher: Life and Work
- Thoughts on Landscape: Collected Writings and Interviews — there is gold in this book. Highly recommended right alongside Why People Photograph.
- Accommodating Nature: The Photographs of Frank Gohlke
- The Brown Sisters. Thirty-Three Years — an essential book for anyone interested in portrait photography.
- Live, Love, Look, Last
- Family Pictures (Photographers at Work)
- No monographs other than inclusion in the New Topographics book.