New Topographics

The pivotal turning point in modern jazz was 1959, when Ornette hit New York. You can argue that Coltrane or Miles or Albert Ayler forever changed jazz, but there is no doubt a big shift in the continuum occurred in 1959. John Litweiler's books The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958, and Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life dig deeply into this pivotal time in music. With photography the rise of modernism isn't quite as clear, but 1975 was clearly a big year due to the exhibition at the George Eastman House called New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape. This exhibit was a turning point in modern landscape photography. The Grove Dictionary of Art provides a nice, concise definition of New Topographics:

Term first used by the American William Jenkins (1975 exh. cat.) to characterize the style of a number of young photographers he had chosen for the exhibition at the International Museum of Photography, Rochester, NY, in 1975. These photographers avoided the ‘subjective’ themes of beauty and emotion and shared an apparent disregard for traditional subject-matter. Instead they emphasized the ‘objective’ description of a location, showing a preference for landscape that included everyday features of industrial culture. This style, suggesting a tradition of documentary rather than formalist photography, is related to the idea of ‘social landscape’, which explores how man affects his natural environment. Jenkins traced the style back to several photographic series by Edward Ruscha in the early 1960s of urban subjects such as petrol stations and Los Angeles apartments.

The photographers included in the exhibition included:

  • Robert Adams
  • Lewis Baltz
  • Bernd and Hilla Becher
  • Joe Deal
  • Frank Gohlke
  • Nicholas Nixon
  • John Schott
  • Stephen Shore
  • Henry Wessel, Jr.

Because the New Topographics is the photographic lineage to which I feel the most connected, I've been making an effort to sit down with books by these photographers. I've been a big fan of the Bechers and Stephen Shore for a long time, but a few of these photographers have escaped me. I've had pretty good luck tracking down expensive and hard to find books through the Link+ interlibrary loan system. I tried to obtain the actual exhibition catalog, but it turned out to be quite rare and expensive. A few years ago a stained copy sold for $610 at Photo Eye.

In the next few weeks I'll be talking about some of the books by these photographers that I've checked out recently. Stay tuned.