Even an ugly landscape can be worth of attention: influential ‘New topographics’ exhibition on view at Rotterdam’s Fotomuseum
‘What I remember most clearly from the original show, was that almost nobody liked it.’ Things sure can change. These days New topographics – Photographs of a man-altered landscape is regarded as a revolutionary and highly influential exhibition. In 1975 almost nobody came to see it at the George Eastman House (Rochester, NY) and almost nobody reviewed it. A new version of the exhibition is now touring with great acclaim. It sure is a good reason to make that trip to Rotterdam, where New topographics is currently on view at the Nederlands Fotomuseum (through September 11).
‘I think it wouldn’t be too strong to say that it was a vigorously hated show. Some people found it unutterably boring. Some people couldn’t believe we were serious, taking pictures of this stuff.’ A quote from one of the participating artists, photographer Frank Gohlke in the LA Times (article here). Guardian critic Sean O’Hagan has another nice one (review here): ‘One man was surprised to find his own truck in one of Robert Adam’s photographs, and had this to say: At first they’re really stark nothing, but then you really look at them and it’s just the way things are. This is interesting, it really is.’
Yes: New topographics signalled a whole new way of looking at the world, of making pictures. ‘It’s the moment when the apparently banal became accepted as a legitimate photographic subject’, O’Hagan phrases it nicely. Photographer John Schott remembers in the LA Times: ‘I was very conscious that my progenitors – Ansel Adams, Paul Caponigro, Edward Weston – were all photographers for whom the landscape was a heroic enterprise. They would position their cameras to find a landscape that was absent of human intervention, a place of pristine beauty. This work basically said there’s a new world to be seen, and it deserves to be looked at, whether you see it as despoiling the landscape or simply as a fact.’
The original New topographics was conceived by William Jenkins, assistant curator at the George Eastman House together with photographer Joe Deal, who worked at Eastman House as exhibitions manager. It comprised pictures by Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore and Henry Wessel Jr. More than 100 of the 168 pictures in the original show have been reassembled for this restaging, which has been on view already at the L.A. Country Museum of Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
There’s not much I can add that hasn’t already been written about this seminal show. It’s just that by walking along the walls with these pictures you’ll realize how influential this exhibition and these photographers have been and still are today. You can feel their influence in almost any exhibition with contemporary photography you’ll go to. Just one more quote then, by Robert Adams, which nicely tries to explain what this is about. ‘What I tried to do (…) was to include the objects we’d brought to the landscape and which by common consent are the most ugly, but also to suggest that light can transform even the most grotesque inhuman things into mysteries worth of attention.’
Want more? The L.A. Country Museum has made a couple of YouTube-films with contemporary photographers talking about the influence of the New topographics-generation: Peter Holzhauer, Kim Stringfellow, Mark Ruwedel, Catherine Opie, Amir Zaki.