Symposium review From a ‘Topographic’ to an ‘Environmental’ Understanding of Space at the Museum für Photographie, Braunschweig (30 October 2015)
In 1975, William Jenkins curated an influential exhibition at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. New Topographics showed the work of landscape photographers who had decided to distance themselves from the prevalent style of their time. The influence of New Topographics is not only limited to the USA, but evident in many other Western countries as well. In October 2015 Gisela Parak, the head of the Museum für Photographie in Braunschweig, Germany, curated an exhibition called Landschaft. Umwelt. Kultur. Über den transnationalen Einfluss der New Topographics (Landscape. Environment. Culture. On the New Topographics’ Transnational Impact), which aims at a better understanding of the transnational impact of the New Topographics. While the 1975 exhibition mainly included work of American photographers, the 2015 exhibition includes the work of diverse artists from the USA, France, Germany, England, Spain, Denmark and the Netherlands. Landschaft. Umwelt. Kultur seeks to identify what similar characteristics can be identified in the visual conception of the landscape. As an accompanying part of the exhibition, a symposium was organized on 30 October 2015, titled From a ‘Topographic’ to an ‘Environmental’ Understanding of Space. Looking into the Past and into the Presence of the New Topographics Movement. At the symposium the photographers whose work is shown in the exhibition gathered with critics and scholars to discuss the similarities and differences between the works shown in the past and present exhibition.
The symposium was opened by Gisela Parak. Subsequently, the photo historian Alison Nordström, pointed out in her talk that the photographers who participated in the 1975 exhibition were primarily reflecting the ‘personal memories’ of their era. While it is generally acknowledged that William Jenkins’ exhibition instigated and manifested a movement in the depiction of landscape, Nordström suggests that the assembly of these photographers was not initially oriented towards a movement, but it later turned into one. She also notes, the fact that the majority of these artists were highly educated compared to their contemporaries, both influenced their artistic choices and style. That is, it had an impact on the way in which they chose to deviate from what was regarded as landscape during 1970s. Here it should be mentioned that for Jenkins, too, the issue of style was at the center of the exhibition calling it a ‘stylistic event’, indicating that the exhibited photographs were ‘richer in meaning and scope than the simple making of an aesthetic point’. As the scholar of environmental and environmentalist art Suzaan Boettger suggested in her talk at the symposium: the issue of style mainly resulted from the ‘lack of contextualization’ of the New Topographics by artistic community of their time. She argues that although these photographs aimed to be seen as style-less and neutral in capturing the debilitating landscape, their visualization of form is rooted in abstract expressionism and minimalism prevalent in the 1960s. Even though these photographers were countering the romanticizing view of nature and challenging the idea of the ‘edenic state’, they were not resistant to the influence of the other genres in visual art. For instance, Robert Adams’ photographs are closely related to modernist paintings and literature and the choice of using black-and-white photography signals this connection, says Boettger.
Nevertheless, as Boettger argues, what is at stake is not the way the New Topographics reflected their predecessors’ influences, but the fact that they aligned themselves with the epoch of ecological and environmental concern. According to her, these photographers, along with their contemporaries, should be viewed as the demonstration of ‘Anthropocene’, the period from the 1960s to the present. Including the New Topographics in the category of ‘Anthropocene’, photographers such as Edward Burtynsky and Richard Misrach can also be seen within the same category, suggested Boettger. The works of Burtynksy are not only influenced by the abstract expressionism aesthetic — like the work of the New Topographics was — but they also reflect the ways in which human activities have been exerting a devastating effect on the environment. This environmental concern, for instance, can be identified in Lewis Baltz’s photographs showing garbage occupying the public space, or in Misrach’s exhibition called Petrochemical America (1988, Atlanta, USA), in which he drew the public’s attention to the environmental destruction caused by industrialized landscapes. As such, for Boettger subsuming the New Topographics under the category of ‘Anthropocene’, above all, aims at prompting society’s ‘environmental activism’ regarding the preservation of landscape. For the next speaker, the American photographer Jennifer Colten, landscape is defined as the periphery of nature and culture. In her recent photography exhibition Wasteland Ecology, she attempts to simultaneously embody the ‘banal’ and the ‘wild’ nature. She considers her fascination with the ‘banal’ as being a direct influence of her photography teacher Joe Deal, who was specialized in depicting how landscape was transformed by people. In Colten’s landscape photographs, nature is not presented as to be ‘saved’ by humans in the era of environmental intimidations. Instead, it is represented as a ‘resilient object’, which can always make a comeback. As Colten says, her fascination with the idea of ‘resilient nature’ is closely related to her understanding of the notion of ‘entropy’ in Robert Smithson’s land art projects. Therefore, her photographs are not intended to show an ordered nature afflicted by the culture, instead they try to point out how nature, has the potency to rectify the damages that have been exposed to it.
Matthew Shaul, the head of Programming and Operation Business at the University of Hertfordshire Galleries (Museum of St Albans), identifies several British photographers as progenitors of the New Topographics in the UK. For example, according to Shaul, John Myers’ series Boring Photos (1977), John Davies’ series Power Station (1983), Jason Oddy’s series Sanatorium (1999), Simon Roberts’ series Motherland (2004), and more recent work of Melissa Moore called Land Ends (2013) could be considered as the British New Topographics, because these photographers pivot their work around the concept of the ‘banal’, the ‘ordinary’ and the ‘mundane’, that is everyday subjects. Still, not all the aforementioned British photographers share the same view of their subjects as being a ‘landscape’. While, for instance, Oddy’s Sanatorium photographs display the interior of abandoned buildings around the Black Sea where Russian residents would go to spend their holidays twenty years ago, Myers’ photographs are about ‘boring’ subjects in general, such as a television set in an empty room. It is true that one of the main challenges posed by the New Topographics was ‘to separate the subjects of these photographs from their meaning — what they are of from what they are about’.  Nevertheless, it should be also considered that not every photographer who employs the notion of the ‘banal’ as its subject matter can be categorized under the term ‘New Topographics’. Therefore, perhaps it demands a more rigor consideration whether all the British photographs mentioned by Shaul can be viewed as the counterparts of the New Topographics or not. Primarily because not all of them share the same interest in showing the altering landscape of their time, which is one of the main tenets of the New Topographics.
Assessing the transnational impact of the New Topographics in the Netherlands, the Dutch curator Frits Gierstberg (Nederlands Fotomuseum, Rotterdam) suggested in his talk that the Dutch photographers whose work reflects the aesthetics and concerns of the New Topographics were not aware of the 1975 exhibition, nor of its accompanying catalogue. This was mainly a consequence of the gap between curators and artists in the Netherlands during the 1970s and 1980s, says Gierstberg. For instance, although the Dutch artist Ger Dekkers functioned as a role model for his successors, at his time he was only recognized by Dutch curators as a ‘conceptual artist’ and not as a landscape photographer. However, thanks to the cooperation and assistance of the Rijksmuseum, the Dutch photographers’ focus on specific traits of the Dutch landscape, such as flatness and man-made construct, was eventually acknowledged.
For example, the Dutch photographer Theo Baart, who spoke at the symposium, has been spending his lifetime documenting and investigating the artificial nature of Dutch landscape. Whereas Baart acknowledges that he was profoundly influenced by the formalism and style of the American New Topographics, he does not consider himself as continuing this movement. Baart’s aim in capturing the Dutch landscape is to indicate the alteration of Dutch identity along its landscape. He has been capturing his residential surroundings (Hoofddorp and Amsterdam) during the last decades. The main reason he chose to document this specific region is the geographical proximity to where he resides. By choosing his continually changing environment as the subject matter of his photographs, he aims at deciphering the ‘typical’ features of Dutch houses and landscape. Addressing the increasing global industrialization in suburban areas, Baart has selected the area around the airport close to his living place to embody how the expansion of the airport will eventually lead to the demolition of its surroundings. Therefore, it can be said that Baart’s aim primarily has been the documentation of the changing Dutch landscape, caused by the expansion of increasing industrialization in the Netherlands.
The next speaker was the French photographer Jean-Louis Garnell, who extensively cooperated with the Mission Photographique de la DATAR. For Garnell, the photographic corpus that resulted from his cooperation with DATAR was not initially meant to be considered as ‘documentation’, but as ‘picture making’. In his photographs, he intended to show the consequence of what ‘civilization’ had done to the landscape. His main aim was to show that the shocking image of the damaged landscape in France had left him in an ‘undecidable’ state regarding the future of the landscape. The artist also remarked that his ‘photographs could have been taken anywhere else’, stressing the triviality of their locations. Lastly, he underscored the importance of picture making and formalism in his approach towards the landscape.
After Garnell’s talk, the Denmark-based Argentine artist Christina Capetillo presented her landscape series made in Scandinavia (Sweden, Denmark and Greenland). In her work, Capetillo investigates how nature and culture converge with each other, and how the traces of this convergence can be seen. According to Capetillo, ‘in the act of creating images we turn land into landscape by pointing out something over something else. Nature is made present; landscape becomes an image to which we can relate.’
It should be noted that not all of the photographers who are considered to be the successors of the New Topographics have/had the same intentions. For instance, the French art historian Larisa Dryansky investigates the influences of Italian and French movie directors (Michelangelo Antonioni and Jean-Luc Godard) on the New Topographics movement in the US, claiming that for these photographers ‘sources of inspiration were not all photographic, nor were they necessarily American’. Keeping Garnell’s remark in mind that his photographs ‘could have been taken anywhere else’, I would like to conclude this review by suggesting that the transnational impact of the New Topographics is not exclusively limited to its geographical provenance, nor to the reception and the perception of its catalogue. Instead, within a transnational examination of the New Topographics, equally significant is how the awareness about the changing landscape was disseminated in the era of globalization through different media, which are not necessarily photographic, for example cinema. Taken as a whole, the symposium at the Museum für Photographie not only has drawn attention to and provided a platform for investigating the transnational impact of the New Topographics, but also has shown that by referring to the New Topographics, forty years after its inauguration, new questions can be raised to extend and refine our understanding of the landscape.
Seyed Abolfazl Shobeiri is a Research Master student of HLCS (Historical, Literal and Cultural Studies) at the Radboud University of Nijmegen. In his BA thesis, he primarily focused on comparative visual research between American New Topographers and their Iranian counterparts. During his MA, he explored the notion of place vis-à-vis the ways in which it can extend our understanding of the landscape in the visual arts, with special attention for landscape photography.↑
1. The exhibition showed the work of the American photographers Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore, Henry Wessel, and the German duo Bernd and Hilla Becher.↑
2. William Jenkins, New Topographics: Photographs of Man-altered Landscape (Rochester, NY: 1975).↑
3. The term ‘Anthropocene’ addresses the epoch in which human activities started to have a profound impact on the Earth’s ecosystem. Coined in 1980s by the American ecologist Eugene F. Stoermer, this term refers to the influences of human behavior on the ecosystem and is widely used in the field of geological studies. ↑
4. In Smithson’s work, ‘entropy’ outlines the lack of order and predictability in nature. That is, despite humans’ tendency to organize and order nature, it always tends to transform itself into decline and disorder. ↑
5. Toby Jurovics, ‘Same as It Ever Was’, in: Greg Foster-Rice and John Rohrbach (eds.), Reframing the New Topographics (Chicago: Chicago University press, 2013), p. 4.↑
6. The work of Ger Dekkers is characterized by landscape photographs carefully orchestrated in linear grid sequences. Dekkers attempted to capture the repetitive geometry of Dutch man-made territory in a cinematic fashion: as the landscape unfolds in patterns of fields lined with trees and fences, the eye of the camera moves and crystallizes similar views from different positions.↑
7. DATAR launched a vast artistic commission of photographs with the aim of ‘representing the French landscape in the 1980s’. This initiative, called the ‘DATAR Photographic Mission’, was endorsed by the Prime Minister at a meeting of the Interministerial Committee for Planning on 18 April 1983. Jean-Louis Garnell was among the commissioned photographers who documented the French landscape in the1980s. ↑
8. Statement by Christina Capetillo on her website. Accessed on 8 December 2015. http://www.christinacapetillo.com/www.christinacapetillo.com/About.html ↑
9. Larisa Dryansky, ‘Images of Thought’, in: Greg Foster-Rice and John Rohrbach (eds.), Reframing the New Topographics (Chicago: Chicago University press, 2013), p. 107.↑