Text from Jonathan Green, American Photography: A Critical History 1945 to the Present
New TopographicsMany of the photographers of the new American frontier would have us believe that the essential characteristic of their work is objectivity. Lewis Baltz wrote of his Maryland photographs: "I hope that these photographs are sterile, that there's no emotional content." Joe Deal wrote that he wished to eliminate "the vagaries of sky and horizon." And Robert Adams was "determined, moreover, to stay clear of the mountains. I distrusted the late Victorian passion for mountaintop vistas. Even in his introduction to New Topographics, Jenkins claims that the show's photographs "function with a minimum of inflection in the sense that the photographer's influence on the look of the subject is minimal.... As individuals the photographers take great pains to prevent the slightest trace of judgement or opinion from entering their work.... [Their] viewpoint is anthropological rather than critical, scientific rather than artistic."
This claim to scientific objectivity and neutrality may be understood more as political gesture than as theory. It was an attempt to disassociate this work from the emotionalism and sentimentality of American popular photography. It was also a reaction to what many perceived as the overheated expressionism of the fifties-as represented, for instance, by Minor White-and to the pictorial excesses of the sixties-as represented by Jerry Uelsmann. The statements by Baltz, Adams, and Jenkins were tacit protests against the contemporary production of images that depicted a traditionally sublime landscape; such photographs were considered anachronistic, naive, and indefensible. These statements wished to emphasize instead the geometric and optical qualities of the work, linking it to the cooler, formal concerns of contemporary art, which saw form as essentially architectonic and viewed the landscape as a geometric, formal element. Such statements chose to underscore the formalist precedents for the work at the expense of its photographic heritage. Rather than acknowledging their antecedents in the photography of Watkins, Stieglitz, Weston, and Ansel Adams, these photographers felt more comfortable pointing to precedents in the aestheticization of the American industrial form and landscape in the Precisionist paintings of Demuth and Sheeler, the ironic machine aesthetic of Duchamp and Picabia, the functional stylizations of the Bauhaus, and the conceptual art of the sixties and seventies.
Many of these new photographers were eminently successful in allying their work with precedents in art rather than in photography. Partially because of this rationale, the seventies saw the first close linking of art and photography in major East Coast galleries, which had traditionally shown only graphics, painting, and sculpture. Castelli signed on Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, and John Gossage. Sonnabend Gallery represented the Bechers. Other photographers who held a similarly cool viewpoint could be seen at the Robert Freidus, 0. K. Harris, Sidney Janis, Marborough, and Pace galleries.
Though these photographers presented their work as formal statement and careful documentation and though they were deeply aware of the difference between undefiled terrain and the developed land, their hallmark was not irony. Neither are their photographs emotionally neutral: these are photographs about taking, exploiting, and raping the land. At the same time they are also about the visual potentials of a damaged landscape. Uncomfortable before the traditionally magnificent view, these photographers self-consciously avoided the overtly dramatic; they were unwilling and unable to make the grand gestures of Muybridge, Weston, and Ansel Adams. Equally uncomfortable before the spiritual ennui of the contemporary landscape, they sought out the sublime aspect of the ordinary. Photography provided a means for creating visual beauty out of material that in reality offered little hope for spiritual redemption. Instead of presenting the distressing suburban world that Peter Blake recorded in 1973 in God's Own Junkyard, these photographers took a view closer to that advanced by Robert Venturi in 1972 in Learning from Las Vegas. They recognized the beautiful in the disdained and endowed the vulgar and the ordinary with a new pastoralism. In the end, then, the landscape and suburb are both glorified and disparaged in their work. Their photography is torn between being true to the world which is the basis of documentation-and being true to the medium-which is the basis of art. The essential hallmark of the photography of the new American landscape is ambivalence.
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