Monday, April 13, 2009

New Topographics

It was interesting to read these New Topographics articles not only in the context of this Human/Nature class, but also in light of the theme of this year's SPE conference, Sprawl. I had only been familiar with Frank Gohlke's Mt. St. Helen's photographs, but only viewed it from a technical/printing perspective. However, in the context of the New Topographics and his tornado Aftermath series, I have a much different appreciation for Gohlke's engagement with landscape photography. Ben Lifson's essay explains that Gohlke's work is a "critique of landscape art, its visual rhetoric and its historical and ethical content." I'm not sure if I see the critique that Lifson refers to, but I think that Gohlke firmly fits into the New Topographics label that he supposedly resists. Of course no one likes to be pigeon-holed, but much of Gohlke's work is certainly under the umbrella of a 'man-altered landscape' -- from the Mt. St. Helen's series to the tornado Aftermath series and even the grain elevators. The grain elevators is, in my opinion, not his most compelling work, but I do see how it fits into how the overarching theme of a human presence in a vast landscape. Lifson states that Gohlke's Witchita ruins are a critique of the art of ruins, but I'm not sure if I find support to this argument in the essay. I view these photos, as well as the Mt. St. Helen's photos as being about how nature (I'm considering humans as part of nature) regenerate after a disaster.

Aftermath: The Witchita Falls, Texas, Tornado No. 11A and 11B, 4503 McNeil, looking north, 1979/1980

I thought Robert Adams's essay was much more enjoyable as I found his 'three verities' of 'geography, autobiography, and metaphor' very useful in thinking about how I should think about landscape photography. This sums up very succinctly what often eludes me in my photographs as far as "going beyond description" goes. I know that his reflection is supposed to be about landscapes, but I think it can apply to what I would want in every one of my photos, no matter what the subject. I suppose if it was a portrait, then I'd replace 'geography' with 'person', but the 'autobiography' part feels like it refers to 'point of view' that is often brought up in critiques.

Greg's application of Systems Theory to New Topographics was compelling in light of the 'everything is connected' theme that we repeatedly return to in this class. I had little knowledge of Systems Theory and the fact that the essay weaves together Minimalism, Modernism, and the New Topographics, it's an interesting intersection of art history. While I was somewhat aware that Robert Adams was invested in societal change because of his clear cut photos, I enjoyed learning of the "holistic" vision that New Topographics artists had in regards to their belief that their art could function as a stand in for a lived experience (p. 15). Adams' New West photos are certainly a critique of development encroaching upon nature and it's easy to see and depict the nature/culture boundary there. However, it is interesting to read about the conceptual anti-Ansel Adams boundaries that New Topographics pushed, especially during the time of the 1970's environmental movements. One would think that there would be more Eliot Porter nature photography to comment on what's happening in the natural world. But rather it feels like the New Topographics actually is closely related to the Land Art of the 1970's -- both work with the tenet that humans shape the land. Instead of Smithson shaping the beautiful Spiral Jetty, we have cookie cutter developments being carved into the desert.

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