New Topographics, SFMOMA

If one were to construct a photography exhibition for me to attend, it might look something like New Topographics at SFMOMA. Indeed, “construction” is an apt term, as most of the photos explore the human alterations to the natural landscape, particularly in the western United States but in other locations as well. Yet, the natural landscape does continue to play a central role in the environments and in the images. It shapes how the human-made structures are constructed and arranged, and how they decay. The exhibition was originally presented in at the Eastman House in Rochester, New York in 1975.

“A turning point in the history of photography, the 1975 exhibition New Topographics signaled a radical shift away from traditional depictions of landscape. Pictures of transcendent natural vistas gave way to unromanticized views of stark industrial landscapes, suburban sprawl, and everyday scenes not usually given a second glance. This restaging of the exhibition includes the work of all 10 photographers from the original show: Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore, and Henry Wessel.”

It is hard to imagine that such a portrayal of landscape was new to art photography at the time. The ideas and subjects in much of the contemporary photography that commands my attention, as well as my own photographs that often appear on this site for Wordless Wednesday. But it was certainly a sharp contrast to the traditional views of landscape in photographs, especially view of the American West, which tended to be not just natural but a romanticized form of nature. One only need step beyond the exhibition to SFMOMA’s main photography collection to see the changing views of landscape and romantic imagery.

The desert tends to be my favorite natural landscape (along with the coast), and is prominently featured in many of photographs. It has a stark beauty, but it also acts as a vessel for human artifacts. Set in the desert landscape, one can linger on the contrasts and similarities between artificial and natural. The straight lines and simple textures don’t get lost in the landscape, and are in fact amplified by it. In Joe Deal’s Untitled View (Boulder City), the roads, buildings and the trailer are partially obscured by natural elements. In a sense, they are distilled down to the lines , which are emphasized by the wires and shadows that traverse the image. At the same time, the natural landscape also seems to follow the straight lines, and in turn the soft undulations of the terrain and reflected in shallow peaks of the partially hidden houses.

[Joe Deal (American, b. 1947), Untitled View (Boulder City), 1974, George Eastman House collections. © Joe Deal.]

The lines (no pun intended) between the natural and artificial aspects of the landscape are further blurred in Frank Gohlke’s Irrigation Canal, Abuquerque, New Mexico. Here we see a completely artificial environment, the concrete-sided canal with vegetation establishing itself at the edges of the water.

[Frank Gohlke (American, b. 1942), Irrigation Canal, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1974, George Eastman House collections. © Frank Gohlke.]

At first glance, the mud and vegetation seem to mar the otherwise smooth and clean surface of the canal. But in reality, they are part of the environment, and thus part of the image as well. One could say the same thing about the reverse situation in Deal’s photograph, where the human-made elements have become part of the natural landscape.

Lewis Baltz takes the theme of straight lines to its aesthetic extreme in both the artificial and natural aspects of the environment. His images feature perfectly rectangular buildings set against the flat landscape in Orange County, California.

[Lewis Baltz (American, b. 1945), Jamboree Road Between Beckman and Richter Avenues, Looking Northwest, George Eastman House collections. © Lewis Baltz.]

Some of Baltz’s other photographs feature facades of rectangular commercial buildings either straight on or at angles. Close-up and with less context from the landscape, they begin to feel more abstract. This is particularly true of East Wall, McGraw Laboratories with its extremely high contrast black and white rectangles. In South Wall, Mazda Motors, 2121 East Main Street, Irvine, the landscape is seen only in the reflection of a window, once again a rectangle inside another.

The sharp contrast and combination of architecture, landscape and abstraction made Baltz’s pieces among my favorite in the exhibition. Similarly, my attention was also drawn to the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher. Their photographs featured industrial and mining buildings in Pennsylvania. Some of the buildings were in states of disrepair, such as Loomis coal Breaker/Wiles Barre, Pennsylvania (1974), or even seemed on the verge of collapse as in the image below:

[Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, 1931-2007 and b. 1934), Pit Head, Bear Valley, Pennsylvania, 1974
© Hilla Becher, 2009.]

The structure seems to melt back into the natural environment, and at the same time provides a series of straight (albeit somewhat distorted) lines and geometric shapes. Once again, the high contrast of the image allows one to focus on the abstract elements without completely losing the context that it is a building on a hillside. It would be easy to dismiss these photographs (and indeed many in the exhibition) as social commentary or socially-inspired art, but they have detached quality and the emphasis is on the visuals details – in particular those details that I look for in when viewing and evaluating modern art. The Bechers’ images in particular have a sculptural quality, something that comes out even more directly in their book Anonyme Sculpturen.

Nicholas Nixon (American, b. 1947), Buildings on Tremont Street, Boston, 1975; George Eastman House collections; © Nicholas Nixon

Nicholas Nixon’s work stands apart from the others in the exhibition in that depicts urban landscapes from Boston and Cambridge. His Buildings on Tremont Street, Boston depicts a classic 20th century vertical city image of tall and densely packed but quite detailed buildings. Nixon’s image Boston City Hall, Covernment Center Square and Faneuil Hall provides another type of contrast in the landscape that is particular to cities, a tension between modern and traditional architecture. Set against a backdrop of larger buildings, one see a popular older landmark contrasted with the modernist and rather controversial Boston City Hall. It’s a building I actually quite like visually, and it brings us back the rectangular shapes in Baltz’s southern California images.

I conclude with this quote from the exhibition catalog – a rather extensive volume that includes not only the images but a detailed discussion as well as a reproduction of the original catalog – that I find illuminating in thinking about the work of these artists as well as my own photographic interests:

Photography based on attraction to, even love of, the subject while neither revealing that motivation nor imposing it on viewers – it may confuse viewers accustomed to being seduced or sermonized. Adding another degree of complexity is the likelihood that the attraction and love were likely not pure, but instead joined to anxiety and repulsion. Reconciling these opposing forces was an exercise undertaken by each of the New Topographics photographers in different ways.

[New Topographics, copublished by Steidl Publishers and Center for Creative Photography in cooperation with George Eastman House, page 18.]

The exhibition will be on display at SFMOMA through October 3.

[All images used in this article were provided courtesy of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Individual copyrights displayed in captions.]