Unreal Nature

May 24, 2017

The Mess of the Present

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:57 am

… These photographs of man-altered landscapes forestalled nostalgia and prevented an escape into the past — instead, they forced viewers to remain in the present and think about the future.

This is from the title essay by Britt Salvesen for the new, 2010 reprint of New Topographics, which was originally published in 1975:

… Although New Topographics has since been identified by many as a turning point in photographic history — and has given a label to a highly validated approach to landscape — neither the original viewers, nor the curator, nor the participating artists anticipated this outcome at the time.

… Looking back from the perspective of the twenty-first century, we can see New Topographics as a bridge between the still-insular fine-art photography world and the expanding post-conceptual field of contemporary art, simultaneously asserting and deconstructing the medium’s modernist specificity, authority, and autonomy; and ultimately serving as a progenitor of today’s Dusselforf-inspired school of landscape photographers, whose work is presented as contemporary art in museums, galleries, and art fairs.

[line break added] In this coming-of-age story, photography assimilates and also generates new meanings and markets. Harbinger, catalyst, point of departure … these terms, applied retrospectively to New Topographics, suggest a neat trajectory from past to future without adequately accounting for the mess of the present, that is, the moment of coalescence, when aesthetic intuitions aligned with everyday lived experience and larger cultural preoccupations.

[line break added] This registration of micro and macro concerns — the resolution of many layers into a complex but legible image — not only validates the prominence of New Topographics in photographic history, but also suggests something about the history of ideas, providing a case study of their elaboration and circulation in a particular place and time.

… “People come to me and think that I understand this because I invented it, and I didn’t really understand it very well then. I think my essay reveals that.” With this retrospective comment, [show curator] Jenkins reminds us that New Topographics was an experiment, soundings rather than a statement.

… Jenkins’s foregrounding of the problem of style challenges the viewer to engage, at least at one level, in fairly traditional connoisseurship or formal analysis. How can the New Topographics style be characterized? More specifically — to use the language of style’s key theorists — what are its generative elements, that is, the qualities discernible not only in one body of work but across several bodies of work? And are those elements unique as seen against other artists, periods, or schools?

Looking for commonalities in New Topographics, we might first observe that all the prints are “straight,” exhibiting sharp focus, tonal range, minimal grain, and full-frame printing. Uniformity of subject matter can also be observed, for all the photographs portray the built environment, without apparent distortion or intervention, and without imposing an obvious judgment or agenda. The nine bodies of work reveal patterns, trace resemblances, or gather types.

[line break added] These shared features distinguish New Topographics from photographic modes based on other aesthetic values, such as expressionism, abstraction, narration, and the unique print, which might be achieved through high contrast, cropping, darkroom manipulation, staging, or non-silver processes. As for points of disparity, the most evident are related to technical preferences.

… When, how, and why did New Topographics — not some other exhibition, group, or approach — come to be seen as marking a turning point or even a paradigm shift for photography? This outcome is all the more surprising given the fact that no single proselytizer took up the legacy of New Topographics.

… the participating artists showed little inclination to identify themselves with New Topographics as a style or label. Simply put, they wanted to continue their work as individuals. As Andy Grundberg and Julia Scully summarized in 1979, “It would be difficult to argue that the exhibition’s premise was faulty. More likely, the show’s codification of loosely shared values simply acted as a springboard against which the photographers could respond in their ongoing involvement with photography.”

… Bringing that rare moment forward to the present, we see New Topographics deployed rhetorically as if it were a universal standard rather than a set of proposals that loosely linked a group of individuals at a particular time. Speaking in the early 1970s, Walker Evans rejected the sentimental idea that his photographs embodied an era (the 1930s) for later generations. The artists of New Topographics took this warning to heart in dealing with their own time.

[line break added] They drew on the photographic medium, the ideas around them, their personal experiences, anxieties, and hopes — all of which led to the pictures Jenkins and others saw as neutral, uninflected, and objective. These photographs of man-altered landscapes forestalled nostalgia and prevented an escape into the past — instead, they forced viewers to remain in the present and think about the future.

-Julie

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