Unreal Nature

April 26, 2017

The Jolt of Uneasy Recognition

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:46 am

… a culture defined more by corporate commerce than community, where people lived with a modicum of comfort but in an atmosphere of vacant alienation.

This is from John Rohrbach’s introduction to Reframing the New Topographics edited by Greg Foster-Rice and John Rohrbach (2013):

… Why has this unassuming exhibition had such an enduring resonance that it was reconstructed in its entirety in 2009 and accompanied by a book of more than 300 pages? The reason lies not merely with the photographers’ stylistic break from their immediate predecessors; rather, the show’s longstanding influence lies in the jolt of uneasy recognition that it delivered.

[line break added] Like Paul Strand’s 1915 photographs of New York City, Walker Evans’s American Photographs (1938), and Robert Frank’s The Americans (1959), New Topographics counterpointed prevailing conceptions of contemporary American life with a new definition of the country’s condition that was instantly recognized to be insightfully, if disturbingly more true.

[line break added] For Strand, this redefinition entailed replacing Whitmanesque celebrations of the fast-expanding array of modern technological advances with overt recognition of the disjunctions of modern urban life. Through unnervingly close-up portraits of street people in Lower Manhattan and strongly angled urban views, Strand’s images proclaimed that the city was overwhelming human scale, engulfing and tossing aside those who could not adjust. Evans, in contrast, offset the prevailing mix of Rooseveltian “can-do” spirit and national urban-centered commercialism by pointing out the continuing power of the rural vernacular.

[line break added] Countering the proclamations of the “new,” Evans acknowledged the strength of the material past with all of its chips and wear. Twenty years later, Robert Frank assembled his own vivid counterpoint to the prevailing conception of contemporary life as defined by happy, white, nuclear families led by corporate men. Like his mentor Evans, he focused on the vernacular; but, where Evans had positioned people as foils to objects, Frank placed people front and center, encasing them in a patriotic, automotively transient, and ethnically and racially diverse national culture defined by exhaustion.

The New Topographics exhibition provided a vivid contribution to this developing portrait of the United States. With great efficiency and clarity, the show visually summarized the beginnings of America’s shift from an urban-industrial culture to a service-oriented economy defined by suburban warehouses and standardized tract house neighborhoods spreading out, especially across the West.

[line break added] This new America was marked by repetition and isolation, a place increasingly dominated by quickly constructed buildings and a culture defined more by corporate commerce than community, where people lived with a modicum of comfort but in an atmosphere of vacant alienation. The vision was so convincing that it instantly reshaped landscape photography with its celebration of directness, emotional remove, and attentiveness to humanity’s shaping of the land. Its perspective was so powerful that it still dominates landscape photography practice today.

-Julie

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