The New Topographics, or Paradise Repaved

Words: Larry Lytle

When one of our ancestors looked out from the lip of her cave at the surrounding vista and thought, “If it wasn’t for nature trying to kill me, this would be a nice place to live,” we began our conflicted and often uneasy relationship with the landscape. As our Neolithic ancestors moved from one place to another and finally gave up their nomadic existence by settling at locations that offered stability—a stream, rich soil for crops and a high promontory to watch for enemies—they still had to contend with dense, inedible plant life, dangerous animals and difficult topography. Today, though much of the world’s flora and fauna has been subdued to the point of extinction, its hills and gullies flattened and filled, we have a different, yet still problematic coexistence with the land we build upon.

I teach photography at a small state university in sunny Southern California, and live in a house that sits in a suburban tract built at the end of WWII. This local is famously known as “The Valley” and is ground zero to the early, modest wood-framed stucco dwellings and the newer, grander gated McMansions. Suburban sprawl was the main form of development in 1950s Southern California. Neither lack of water, floods nor wildfires, which were and still are part of the environment, has put a dent in developers building houses that can look confusingly alike. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley in that era, first in a home built by my parents on a three-acre lot. After the dream of the golden dreamers fell apart, I moved with my mother to a tract house with a lawn and comparatively small yard. Since then, I have seen this valley of suburbs and malls become more architecturally homogenized.

Although I don’t photograph vistas, with or without buildings, I always enjoy looking at the work of the New Topographics photographers. In their imagery is the landscape crammed with houses, motels, gas stations, tilt-up warehouses and fast-food joints I know so well. I find some comfort in living in one of the many Southern California living-museums-of-suburbanology. Although constructed of ticky tacky, it has gone through two major earthquakes and survived.

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same.
There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they’re all made of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.
Little Boxes by Malvina Reynolds, 1962

Since photography’s inception, it has been at the artistic forefront of showing us how we have radically changed the landscape. (This began with the mid-19th century American survey photographers like Carlton Watkins and A. J. Russell, who photographed untouched natural beauty as well as industrial encroachment of the wilderness.) I still believe in photography’s ability to create a document that is believable and unbiased in showing us the truth of things. I want students, who easily and often alter their pictures, to understand the power of photographic documentation without jiggery-pokery. So, for their first assignment, after presenting them with images and ideas concerning the history of landscape photography, which includes a healthy dose of New Topographics imagery, I ask them to come up with documentary photographs that represent their interpretation of utopian and dystopian landscapes.

It was in this landscape-suburban-utopia-dystopia lecture frame of mind that I attended Classic Photo LA this past winter and stopped by a display from the Joseph Bellows Gallery of photographers associated with the New Topographics movement. That now famous 1975 exhibition, which originated at the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House (GEH), has reverberated across 43 years of photographic history to create its own genre of landscape imagery. The ten photographers represented in “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-altered Landscape”—Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Hilla and Bernd Becher, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore and Henry Wessel Jr.—came together in a holistic way: either by knowing each other, through their connection with the GEH, or both.

The driving force was William Jenkins, who was assistant curator of 20th century photography, and had an abiding interest in the photograph as a document. Though all of the photographers include human-made structures and alterations within the landscape, the subjects are manifold: suburban houses, under construction and finished (Adams, Deal, Wessel); motels (Schott); overviews of the city of Boston (Nixon); streets and intersections (Shore, Wessel); and industrialized buildings and spaces (Baltz, Ghohlke, the Bechers). Several of the photographers—Gohlke, the Bechers, Shore—included more than one genre of structure, and depicted buildings and landscapes from many places around the United States.

In 2009 the exhibition was reconstituted and traveled to eight museums in the U.S. and Europe. A 300-page catalog, printed by Steidl, came out of this show and is an important document for a retrospective understanding of this exhibition and its effect on photography. Britt Slavesen and Alison Nordström point out, in their well-researched essays, that the exhibition has been misconstrued and to some degree mythologized. For example, the images are not all taken in the West, not all of them were about the spread of suburban living and, most importantly, the exhibition was not meant as an environmental statement.
“A house is a machine for living in.”
Le Corbusier, 1932

Perhaps the exhibition’s most compelling aspect was the photographers’ straightforward, expressionless way in which they depicted their subject matter. Although Baltz and Adams had incisive ideas about the alteration of the landscape, they left those feelings out of their photographs. For Jenkins this approach was the raison d’être for the exhibition, a point he makes in its introductory essay: “But while the message-carrying ability of photography is both useful and provocative, it tends to push into second place what is perhaps photography’s most important attribute—its ability to describe something accurately and in detail.

“The photographers in this exhibition recognize the importance of this information-carrying capacity and thus cherish it. They also realize that if this capacity is to be used to its fullest they must not allow personal inflection or opinion to stand in its way.”1

As well, statements by some of the photographers made it clear that their work was an exploration of pure photographic documentation, with the landscape altered by human activity as the focal point. The exhibition was conceptual, not environmental, and fit neatly within the idiom of conceptual art, minimalism and land art driven by postmodern theory that was in the air at that time. It came out of the era of art about art, which had been brewing for much of the 20th century. Photography’s gift to that movement would be the thing that a photograph is good at: separating the artist from the end result. That is something that painting, sculpture or land art was unable to do—keep the hand or mark of the artist separate from the work. Jenkins also elaborated on the photographers’ goal to eliminate any vestige of style from their imagery. In this way they further removed the photographer as an obvious agent of the photograph’s creation. When one looks at the images in this exhibition, unless one knows who the generator of the image was, or remembers who used what subject as their focus, they could essentially have come from any one of them.

As Slavesen points out, it’s no wonder that so much was, and still is, read into these photographs, as the exhibition acted as a blank slate for the ecological awakening beginning in the 1960s and that extends to the environmental movement of today. In 1962, Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring created the first ecological shockwaves. Ansel Adams’ photo books lent support to the Sierra Club’s conservational mission. Foreboding popular music, like Barry Mcguire’s version of “Eve of Destruction,” was on everyone’s transistor radio. The Vietnam War brought us daily newscasts of napalm-bombed forests. Films like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Night of the Living Dead (1968) upended the foundations of our safe and secure life and sent us looking for apocalyptic, environmental and nuclear end-of-days messages in most everything.

Photography was also going through major changes during the 1960s and 1970s. The New Topographics photographers were affected by the detailed and factually oriented style of Walker Evans and Eugéne Atget, as well as conceptual artists like Ed Ruscha, minus the irony. In the pre-WWII decades, the manipulated visions of pictorialist art photography had given way to purist art photography as espoused by Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston, and photojournalistic approaches advocated by Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank. This move towards photography’s more documentary abilities can be seen in the public’s voracious consumption of imagery in Life and Look magazines.

Nevertheless, as pop culture appetites shifted in the 1960s, so too did photography. Critics like Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes questioned the nature of documentation as it applied to film and photographic imagery. In 1970, the noted curator Peter C. Bunnell put together an exhibition of dimensionally transformed photographs titled “Photography Into Sculpture” at the Museum of Modern Art. Photographers like Duane Michaels, Ralph Eugene Meatyard and Diane Arbus began to push against the idea of the pure document, and towards personal statement and a new subjectivity.

In a subconscious way, I think that the New Topographics reconfigured the objective nature of the photographic image. Perhaps it even inspired a new way of thinking about what objectivity can mean in a realm shaped by self-expression and changing ideas of what constituted a photograph. By instilling a deadpan ambiguity into these images, one can excuse viewers who perceived them as a statement on the negative effects of the human-altered environment, and as social commentary. But if we look at them as intended, they are a discussion about the meaning of photography as a document: the stripping down of the photograph as a vessel to talk about any number of technical, compositional and theoretical issues about photography. The images and their purported intent create a chasm-sized context vacuum that allows viewers to insert their own ideas and concerns. With images that carry such charged meaning, it’s in our nature to want to read something into them, to see an explanation in the light of our own predisposition of what we hold to be true.

In the aftermath of this exhibition, although it was not widely seen, the work diffused out into the ranks of photographers through magazines, grad school lectures and the like, and changed our thinking about landscape photography, as put forth by Ansel Adams, et al. The photographers shown here have in some sense adhered to the New Topographics approach. Some of them were working in this genre at the same time as the 1975 exhibition, though not included in it. Some are second generation and still explore the possibilities as put forth by the primary group of Topographers. (One issue that must be mentioned is that very few women have lent their insights to this genre. Hilla Becher and Rennie Barrow are exceptions that prove the rule.) Due to the Bechers’ influence there is a parallel group of well-regarded photographers working in Germany, including Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth and others. And thanks to book publishers, collectors and gallerists, like Bellows, the genre is ever-present in the minds of photographers and photo enthusiasts.

Mike Mulno, the director of the Joseph Bellows Gallery, was a student of Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon and William Jenkins. Mulno carries on their approach and is an exemplary practitioner of the way in which the New Topographics has influenced today’s generation of photographers. “My pictures come out of an interest in describing or cataloging aspects of the city, in many cases the places people call home,” Mulno says. “A landscape that includes: neighborhoods, houses and living spaces. The small-scale apartment building or multi-unit dwelling is a prominent residential structure in the southern California landscape. The structures themselves are wonderful in their simplicity and design; some have adornment and others are completely blank except for the multiple address numbers.

“There is a certain quietness to the ‘New Topographics’ photographs that I find inspiring. I respond to the restraint on the photographer’s part to allow the picture to be formed by the subject; a visual idea that the camera is employed in such a way as to almost conceal the photographer’s presence, a neutrality in considering the picture-making process.”

One of the major tenets of the American Dream is home ownership. Shelter is, as the psychologist Abraham Maslow pointed out, a basic need. In a stable political climate, if we have the means, we tend to choose to live in a place we like, that holds some ineffable lure—beautiful vistas, clean air, wide-open spaces. Once we have a shelter, a secure place to call home, we find ourselves needing establishments that sell food, clothes and other consumables that further our physical and psychological comfort. These require buildings, streets and…before you know it we have cities, complete with suburbs, shopping centers, motels, ice-skating rinks and fast-food joints. At a certain point, we may wonder how we got to this place, if we live in a dystopia, utopia or something in between. I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that question, but perhaps, as Emerson reminds us, it takes a poet’s, or more fittingly a photographer’s eye to help us sort it out and then “integrate all the parts.”

They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique
And a swinging hot spot
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
“Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell, 1970

Addendum
Our sincere thanks to Joseph Bellows Gallery for providing images. Established in 1998, the gallery features rotating exhibitions of both historic and contemporary photography, with a special interest in American work from the 1970s. More information can be found at josephbellows.com.

1. William Jenkins notated opening statement as reprinted in Britt Slavesen’s essay titled New Topographics. New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-altered Environment; published by CCP, GEH and Steidl; 2009, p. 53.

Photo 1 Photo 2
Gene Kennedy. Marinita Townhomes, Dana Point, Orange County, CA, 1985