Unreal Nature

May 3, 2017

The World You Have to Look At

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:41 am

… nature is what is left over after every other demand has been satisfied.

This is the essay ‘Same as It Ever Was: Re-reading New Topographics‘ by Toby Jurovics found in Reframing the New Topographics edited by Greg Foster-Rice and John Rohrbach (2013):

New Topographics: Photography of a Man-altered Landscape is arguably the greatest show never seen. This 1975 exhibition was organized by William Jenkins at the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, and traveled to only two other venues the following year: the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles and the Princeton University Art Museum. It was accompanied by a slender forty-eight-page catalogue featuring three reproductions for each artist, their resumes, a checklist, and an introduction that stretches to not quite three pages. Yet rarely has an exhibition — particularly one seen by so few — had as substantive and lasting influence.

Jenkins was remarkably prescient in his selection of images, recognizing many of the artists who would come to exert the greatest influence on American landscape photography at the close of the twentieth century: Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore, and Henry Wessel. When organizing an exhibition, curators should all hope to have such a high batting average. Yet while the phrase “New Topographics” immediately brings to mind for most of us a particular style of photograph, it is remarkable how little we actually know of the specific images that were displayed.

[line break added] New Topographics has become a shorthand, suggesting photographs made with a dry and restrained formal style. These images are expected to be uninflected and detached — made without sentiment or emotion. Most importantly, they are thought to possess a resistance or reaction to what was then the prevailing tradition of landscape photography, the West Coast aesthetic as defined by artists such as Ansel Adams, Wynn Bullock, Minor White, and Paul Caponigro.

[line break added] While the photographs associated with New Topographcs knowingly exchanged the sublime for the subtle, many carried an emotional depth and complexity as well as an overt moral position equal to, if not greater than, the work of these more popular and familiar photographers. They are anything but what might be considered dispassionate or documentary. Shortly after the exhibition, Robert Adams was asked, “You have been identified with the Urban Topographers, people like Stephen Shore, Frank Gohlke, Joe Deal, Nick Nixon. How do you feel about that?” He replied, ,”The term is too narrow to encompass all our sins. And it suggests a scientific attitude that, in truth, most of us I suspect don’t feel.”

… The photographers in the New Topographics exhibition were not attempting to isolate and distance themselves from the landscape but to re-engage in a way that would be meaningful to contemporary experience. In an interview conducted for Gohlke’s 2007 retrospective at the Amon Carter Museum, Accommodating Nature, the photographer stated: “Landscape work was being done by a lot of people that were influenced by Adams, Weston, Minor White, and Caponigro that just seemed really dead to me — all the conviction had gone out of it. They weren’t responding to the world anymore: they were responding to an ideal of photographic excellence that came purely from other photographers.”

[line break added] On the one hand, Robert Adams and Gohlke both identify form as the vehicle that points to the emotional truths in their images, a fundamentally traditional position that seems much closer to Edward Weston than Ed Ruscha. Yet they also speak openly about the broader social concerns implicit in their photographs and of a more catholic and tolerant view of the everyday landscape.

Perhaps the least expected voice in this conversation was that of Lewis Baltz, who once stated, “I want my work to be neutral and free from aesthetic and ideological posturing,” while discussing photographs made at Park City, Utah, in 1978 and 1979. Within the same interview, however, he said:

Yet it’s far from incorrect to think of the natural wilderness as a moral wilderness as well; it is, at the least, morally neutral, and therefore accommodating to most any system of beliefs we project upon it. One of the most common views our society has of nature is among the most rigorously secular and least appealing: landscape-as-real-estate. This is the view of nature presented to me in Park City and the view that I tried to show in the photographs. … This attitude holds all non-productive land as marginal; nature is what is left over after every other demand has been satisfied. The fact that the land offers our society such an excellent arena for its venality should tell us much about what is distinctly “modern” in landscape.

There is clearly nothing neutral about his position. Far from being emotionally barren, Baltz’s photographs openly convey sadness, disappointment, and anger at how we have used the landscape.


Lewis Baltz, Nevada 33, looking west

[ … ]

… As much as there is critique, anger, and despair, many of these artists also desired to create a language of possibility, one that was meant to help affect and influence attitudes and choices surrounding the present and future of the landscape — what Gohlke has called “the world you would like to see and the world you have to look at.”

My previous post from this book is here.

-Julie

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