New Topographics: Show review and selected books

Lewis Baltz -- North Wall, Semicoa, 333 McCormick, Costa Mesa 1974

Lewis Baltz — North Wall, Semicoa, 333 McCormick, Costa Mesa 1974

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

TheĀ 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.

Robert Adams

Lewis Baltz

Bernd and Hilla Becher

Joe Deal

Frank Golhke

Nicholas Nixon

John Schott

  • No monographs other than inclusion in the New Topographics book.

Stephen Shore

Henry Wessel

5 thoughts on “New Topographics: Show review and selected books”

  1. Great review, Joe. I had hoped to make it to a members’ preview, but they didn’t have one for this show! Made it to the Fisher show the week before and your comments are spot on–lots of big in your face stuff. I was surprised by how little of it I liked.

    1. They were still dusting off the New Topographics on opening day. Some staff didn’t know it was open. And one of the lights on the Becher prints was out. There were a few pieces in the Fisher collection that I really dug (Diebenkorn, Gerhard Richter), but for the most part I just wanted to go back down the stairs for round #2 on the photography exhibits….and that’s what I did.

  2. Good to see your review of this show. Unfortunately I didn’t see it in the east, and probably won’t be traveling to S.F. to see it, but I recently finished reading the new edition of the book, which I really enjoyed. I’m going to try to write about that some time soon, since you’ve reminded me of it.

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