Essential Reading: New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape

Last year my favorite photography exhibit, and essential accompanying book purchase was Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans (Expanded Edition). This year there will likely be no suspense in these matters. I've just received the Steidl publication of New Topographics, and it's brilliant. The traveling exhibition opens next week at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, and then comes to SFMOMA in July. The show is a restaging of the seminal 1975 exhibit that marked a major shift in modern photography, and continues to be an influence 35 years later.

....curated by William Jenkins, who brought together ten contemporary photographers: Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore and Henry Wessel, Jr. Signaling the emergence of a new approach to landscape, the show effectively gave a name to a movement or style, although even today, the term "New Topographics"-- more a conceptual gist than a precise adjective -- is used to characterize the work of artists not yet born when the exhibition was held. Although the exhibit's ambitions were hardly so grand, New Topographics has since come to be understood as marking a paradigm shift, for the show occurred just as photography ceased to be an isolated, self-defined practice and took its place within the contemporary art world. Arguably the last traditionally photographic style, New Topographics was also the first Photoconceptual style. In different ways, the artists thoughtfully engaged with their medium and its history, while simultaneously absorbing such issues as environmentalism, capitalism and national identity. In this vital reassessment of the genre, essays by Britt Salvesen and Alison Nordstrom accompany illustrations of selected works from the 1975 exhibition, with installation views and contextual comparisons, to demonstrate both the historical significance of New Topographics and its continued relevance today.

If you buy one photography coffee table book this year, put this high on your list. The book is $36.50 at Amazon and currently in stock, and is also available at photo-eye, or perhaps even your local bookstore. And if you missed the expanded edition of the Robert Frank book, then clear some extra room on your coffee table.