New Topographics came to me by a strange route: I ordered it from Amazon in March, but never received it. I assumed it was a lost cause, but then it showed up at my old address the day after I moved, in August. But New Topographics had been with me a long time before that; as long as I’ve been serious about the photographic medium, New Topographics has been there.
The New Topographics I received in the form of a badly timed Amazon package is a book, the exhibition catalog for the restaged exhibition that is still touring the world. The original New Topographics, or NT – allusion to the Bible not misplaced – was a group exhibition staged in 1975 featuring urban landscape work by eight American photographers and the German artist couple Bernd and Hilla Becher. The show went on to be one of the most influential shows in the history of photography. If you want to get into the world of fine art photography and your stuff can in any way be associated with the landscape, you must, in some way, confront NT’s legacy. Although I don’t wish to compare New Topographics’ legacy to religion, I can’t help but note that, like the New Testament, New Topographics came roaring on the scene to upturn order and, after battling initial skepticism, has in many ways become the prevailing order of the day. Not all, but very much of the landscape work being done today can be seen as either an evolution of or a reaction against NT. Also like the New Testament, there’s nothing magical or necessarily revolutionary about New Topographics; rather, it is the climax and popularization of certain trends at the time.
I was introduced to the NT movement through the only one of its practicioners who worked in color, and still my favorite of the bunch: Stephen Shore. Shore was a photographic wunderkind. He reportedly got a darkroom kit at six, sold photographs to MoMA at 14 and was hanging out in Andy Warhol’s Factory at 17. By 24, he had apparently reached the zenith of the photographic art world with a solo show at MoMA. But then, in 1972, he did something interesting: he took a road trip around America — hardly a novel idea by itself — and started to photograph everything he saw. Everything he did. The diners he ate in, but also the toilets he peed in, the beds he slept in, the boring main streets he drove through, the stray dogs, everything. There was no “decisive moment” in Shore’s project: these were not carefully composed or perfectly captured photographic poems. Shore has later compared them to screenshots of his visual field, and if so, they’re indiscriminate screenshots, with little apparent thought as to whether what’s in the visual field at the moment of capture is “interesting”. The result of this trip was American Surfaces, exhibited as a collection of small, cheap prints. Everyone hated it.
American Surfaces may be a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes. It’s crude. It doesn’t appear to take its responsibility to its audience seriously: if I donate my time and my attention to an artist’s work, I do so in the hopes that the artist will manage it carefully. In that respect, Surfaces is a disappointment. Shore, however, was undeterred. Unsatisfied with the poor quality his 35mm negatives gave when enlarged, he turned to bigger, more cumbersome large format cameras. Initially, he intended to simply continue Surfaces, only with bigger negatives, but the bigger camera forces you to slow down; it’s simply impossible to fire off a shot as quickly as with smaller gear, and the film and processing is much more expensive, too. Discussing gear is usually boring, but in this case, it made a dramatic difference in creative output. Something magical happened when Shore was forced to slow down. The result was Uncommon Places, one of the finest photographic series I ever laid eyes on.
Like the rest of the NT photographers, Shore takes a dispassionate, straight on look at the modern landscape. As the exhibition’s subtitle hints, the subject is very much the human-altered landscape, but the presence of the men and women who altered the landscape is toned down, to the point where, if people appear at all, they’re only small pieces of the overall landscape. Shore and the other NT photographers capture the banal, everyday and common very precisely and without tricks or obvious subversion. Lines that are straight in reality are straight in the photographs, and, other than (as is the case for all the NT photographers except Shore) reducing the color palette to black and white, the scenes are very much what you would expect to see if you had stood at the exact place where the photograph was taken, at that exact time.
NT was a movement, but not of the kind that issues manifestos. It was rather a current in the air, a set of people with somewhat similar concerns and somewhat similar ways of addressing them, identified by a curator and brought together for an exhibition. Most of the projects included in the NT exhibition were broader than the NT umbrella. I’m sure looking back now, some of the photographers would rather not be associated with it, or would deny that there ever was a movement at all.
The thing that is repeated in all the photographs is the unflinching, head-on confrontation of the banal and boring. This gives rise to an obvious criticism: that we’re looking at the Emperor’s New Clothes, i.e., that these pictures of the banal, boring and everyday are really just banal, boring everyday pictures. All I can say is that I keep coming back to them, and that, like me, others keep coming back to them, even after 36 years; if these were your average Joe’s boring family album photos, the world at large wouldn’t care after three decades.
This criticism is tied up with a more general criticism of what we might call straight photography, photography that doesn’t have many tricks, doesn’t manipulate the subject before exposure and doesn’t significantly alter the exposure after the fact. Photography isn’t ex nihilo: unlike a painter who consciously builds a picture out of paint and an empty canvas, or a writer who starts with a blank page and a pen, the photographer works with the world itself. The world is already out there, rather than created by the photographer, and it is translated into a photograph by a mechanized process. Hopper did plenty of diners and gas stations, and we love him for it. But he, at least, started from scratch. The photographer simply reproduces them. This, to me, rings a little hollow, but I recognize that, whatever it is that makes photography a valid medium for artistic expression, it must be something slightly different from what makes those other, ex nihilo arts valid. The British photographer Paul Graham expresses the same sentiment:
You know, sometimes I think that there is something at photography’s core that, alas, many in the art world don’t get. For example, when someone comes at it from the classic art world perspective they think there’s something missing from what Winogrand did. He simply walked down the street, and took this picture of a demonstration, and it seems just like a lucky snapshot. You know the one where all of the gestures line up in Public Relations; where, if you drew a line with a ruler across the four hand gestures, it would be perfectly straight? Whereas… if Jeff Wall recreated that with ten models, a huge photographic team and lots of postproduction, everyone would accept that – there’s no problem and it’s seen as legitimate, because the artistic and creative process is clear.
My answer to this criticism could easily become long and complicated, but it boils down to this: just like in those other arts, just like in other forms of photography, there’s an element of choice involved in creating straight photographs, whether they be urban landscapes or street photographs. It’s just that the creative process happens on a different level than what the traditional art world accepts or understands. That’s perhaps why Bernd and Hilla Becher’s photos are the only ones in the NT exhibition I dislike; their typologies seem like they were completely automated. The end result looks like it could have been made without human intervention. Of course, there is a definite amount of creativity and human skill involved in their photos, but to me, the end result is too formulaic, a trap that’s easy to fall into with this sort of work; the other photographers in the exhibition for the most part avoid it.
Google Street View / Benford Lepley (editor).
Much can be done with automated pictures, but again, the whole thing boils down to conscious editing. See, for instance, Benford Lepley’s i took a roadtrip on the internet, which is a series of Google Street Views edited down to resemble a photographic diary of a roadtrip. Even Street View is capable of producing good photographs, photographs of aesthetic value, but we are yet to invent a method that can produce a coherent body of work without human intervention.
Most of the accompanying photographs in this essay are from the original NT exhibition, taken sometime in the early 1970s. The first four pictures are mine, taken this last fall. They’re mine, but they clearly also owe a lot to New Topographics; they’re photographs of man-altered landscapes executed in a style similar to the original NT. As Harold Bloom and any struggling artist can remind you, the anxiety of influence can be crippling, or, at least, a significant barrier to making great art. Either you don’t dare to start out doing something out of fear it will simply be a poor shadow of your artistic forebears, or you ignore that nagging voice, go out and do it, and come back to find that you have, in fact, made a poor shadow of your artistic forebears.
I’m not the only one struggling with the shadow of NT. In fact, just last year, a big exhibition opened in Germany called Der Rote Bulli, focusing on the “New Düsseldorf school” of photographers and the influence Stephen Shore and NT has had on them. Der rote bulli, the red WV bus, is the one in the Shore photograph above; the car, a German export, symbolizes the transatlantic relationship between Germany and the US. Shore is connected to the Düsseldorf school through Bernd and Hilla Becher, who were both part of the NT exhibition and, later, taught at the Art Academy in Düsseldorf.
I don’t know how to resolve my anxiety regarding artistic influence, or even if it can be resolved, or whether it should be – isn’t good artistic work good, regardless of whom it was influenced by? – but I can at least console myself by noting that the NT photographers weren’t immune to influence. One of their immediate artistic ancestors must be Ed Ruscha. Ruscha started doing a series of artist’s books with self-explanatory titles like 26 Gasoline Stations and Every Building on the Sunset Strip in the 1960s. His photographs, while perhaps not as carefully composed as the NT photos, are clearly very similar stylistically to the NT work of the 1970s.
Jumping ahead in time, everyone who’s done fine art photography that touches on the man-altered landscape since 1975 has confronted the NT tradition in some way. I don’t know if things will ever be the same, if there will ever be a new break and a way to create this kind of pictures and show them in an artistic context and somehow not confront that legacy. I’m not sure that would be a good thing. NT showed us a new way of seeing and, if we’re lucky, taught us a few things. It’s up to us, the people who aspire to create fine art photography in the 21st century, to take those lessons and build on them to hopefully create something new, but equally interesting.