I was really interested in seeing this show when we passed through California. “New Topographics” was a pivotal influence on me (both as a show and as a movement). It’s waves were still rippling when I first studied photography in college all those years ago. As Colin Westerbeck recounts in his “On the Road and in the Street” essay in Frizot’s New History of Photography (1994), exhibitions can be seminal:
In the years from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, both of the important new trends photography, “New Documents” and “New Topographics”, acquired their names from the landmark exhibition in which they were first identified as movements.
The former, which was curated at the Museum of Modern Art by John Szarkowski in 1967 and intended as a summary of the most important developments in American photography over the last dozen years included work by Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, and Diane Arbus.
The second exhibition, whose full name was New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape was curated eight years later at the International Museum of Photograpy at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, by then Assistant Curator of Twentieth Century Photography, William Jenkins, with work by the photographers Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Bernhard and Hilla Becher, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore, and Henry Wessel Jr.
After a month, I am still irritated by the hubris of attaching the name “Newer Topographics” to this show. It was, to put it frankly, disposable narcissism. While it might be that I’m being a bit nostalgic, I don’t really think so. It’s just that my roots are back there.
Rather than being part of a continuum of old-new-newer, “New Topographics” was, as Westerbeck alludes, somewhat sui generis—though not without precedents (he names Harry Callahan, I would add Aaron Siskind as well). In his discussion of Lewis Baltz and Robert Adams Westerbeck just about nails it:
Baltz’s pictures are monolithic in the sense that they make Southern California, where he grew up, literally two-dimensional and abstract. The unbroken surfaces that Baltz has depicted have—in the photograph anyway—a kind of purity as pattern, often quite beautiful. Yet also implicit is a social comment that is less soothing, for the imagery has a closed-off, claustrophobic quality, as if nature itself were being blotted out by man’s presence in it. The work derives its power from the tension between its visual attractiveness and, as it compels us to see, the invasive historical reality that these sensuous compositions represent.
Baltz’s work has a Minimalism to it that, although less obvious in Adams work—less visible as a spare form of graphics—is nonetheless present there too. In photographer’s views, both the subject matter and the emotional response to it have been reduced to the barest essentials necessary to make an image. In order to find a precedent in post-war photography for a vision such as this, one has to search out an alternative to the moodiness of Frank and the flamboyance of Klein, Winogrand, or Meyerowitz.
New Topographics and New Documents were not interchangeable—and neither has anything to do with the “newer” work shown in Riverside. The work shown by Jeremy Kidd and Eric Curry is cursed by the pseudo-nostalgic label. The continuity in documentary impulse between those seminal shows, for me at least, is rooted in the “invasive historical reality” of the scenes shown, or at the very least the unsentimental portrayal of reality. The work of Kidd and Curry might better be labeled as the “new sentiment,” for it has nothing to do with reality—only their manipulation of it. For example, from Jeremy Kidd’s artist’s statement:
In choosing a location it is important that there is a significant amount of architectural drama. I am ever on the look out for awe-inspiring vistas and terrains that have the potential for composed adaptation. I want to capture the enigmatic drama of place, emphasized by the use of time-lapse photography, panoramic views and careful alteration of the image. I shoot scenes with a digital camera and then develop nearly all my pieces within Photoshop. Each piece can contain up to one hundred two minute exposures almost two hours of time condensed into one finished piece. I consider myself a painter, painting in pixels. Many of these techniques require the same perceptive skills that conventional painting requires. I use elements in the photograph, the architecture, the civic infrastructure, the geology and in organic matter as my material. The pixels that represent these elements are my paint, my, marble, my clay and I manipulate them as such.
While I can agree with his ebullience regarding the impossibility of conveying experience in a single photograph expressed in an earlier paragraph of his statement, this does not mean that manipulating a series of artifacts to suit his inner state gets a viewer any closer to understanding his experience. The pieces are gorgeous ink jets on aluminum, technological marvels that have nothing to do with reality or my experience of these places. They owe an undeclared debt to David Hockney’s camera collages, but rather than being an insightful deconstruction of the power of vision, they are painterly masturbation. I don’t think they will stand the test of time as anything more than self-indulgence. And for me at least, self-indulgence, although dramatic, is transient and boring. It can keep someone busy though, I suppose: beautiful, yes; profound, no.
Eric Curry’s work was even more troubling. It is a swim through the Technicolor TVLand of nostalgia, which can leave you positively muddled with mythos. His web site is innovative though, and I really appreciate the detailed descriptions/videos about each of his photographic constructions. They fill a need, I think, for those who want to uncritically embrace the iconic media images of American mythos. Again, I find this antithetical to the tiny, mostly tongue-in-cheek dramas of Friedlander/Winogrand and the cool precision of Baltz/Adams/Wessel, et. al.. If I had known what sort of work was being shown I wouldn’t have bothered. I was seduced by a nostalgic title, and ultimately killed by the nostalgia of it all. The fault does not rest with the artists, but rather with the curator. The work perhaps has a place, but not within “invasive historical reality” of the topographic/documentary traditions that the title places it within. Both these artists are purveyors of a sort of false epic, a digital fiction only loosely based in fact.
If this is a digital manifesto/movement, I fear the sickly sentimental future.