Exercise 2.3: Typologies
Read an article by Sean O’Hagan on the Exhibition curated by William Jenkins in 1975, which Jenkins termed New Topographics ; watch Tateshots video of Lewis Baltz (1945-2014) talking about his work.
Write down your own responses to the work of any of the practitioners O’Hagan mentions in his article and describe your thoughts on typological approaches:-
- Detailed, precise description of a place or region.
- Graphic representation of the surface features of a place or region on a map, indicating their relative positions and elevations.
- A description or an analysis of a structured entity, showing the relations among its components
- The surface features of a place or region
- The surface features of an object.
- the surveying of the features of a place or region
- The study or description of an anatomical region or part.
Topographic maps are based on topographical surveys and are a type of map characterized by large-scale detail and quantitative representation of relief usually using contour lines. A topographical survey is typically published as a map series, made up of two or more map sheets that combine to form the whole map. As they evolved they became a natural resource in modern nations in planning infrastructure and resource exploitation.
Idea first developed by August Pitt-Rivers. Towards the end of his career in the army (during which he became interested in the development of firearms) he inherited a large estate containing many archaeological sites and this provided him with the opportunity to indulge his interest in different types of tools across time. He sorted his collection into series which he believed demonstrated the tool’s logical progression and his international collection became the founding collection of the Pitts River Museum at the University of Oxford.
New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape– 1975 Exhibition
The Show was curated by William Jenkins who brought together eight young American photographers – Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal, Frank Grohlke, Nicholas Nixon, Jon Schott, Stephen Shore and Henry Wessel, Jr. Jenkins also invited the German couple Bernd and Hilla Becher who, since the late 1950s, had been photographing various obsolete structures in Europe and America. The Bechers first exhibited their photographs in series as ‘typologies’ often shown in grids, under the title of “Anonymous Sculptures”. All these photographers were students of photography, professors, or both. Stephen Shore was the only photographer who worked in colour.
Jenkins referenced the deadpan photographic work of artist Edward Ruscha as being one of the inspirations for the Exhibition and in the catalogue introduction he referred to stylistic anonymity/ absence of style as a common denominator “The pictures were stripped of any artistic frills and reduced to an essentially topographic state, conveying substantial amounts of visual information but eschewing entirely the aspects of beauty, emotion and opinion”. This sentence has been subject to much critique since then
Brief notes on New Topographics: photographs that find beauty in the banal, Sean O’Hagan (2010)
The subtitle of the 1975 Exhibition provides a clue to the deeper unifying theme. which was an interest in the created landscapes of 1970s urban America., as both ‘a reflection of the increasingly suburbanised world around them, and a reaction to the tyranny of idealised landscape photography that elevated the natural and the elemental”. Work such as:-
- Robert Adams – empty streets, pristine trailer parks, rows of standardised tract houses, steady creep of suburban development
- Lewis Baltz – walls of office buildings and warehouses on industrial sites in Orange County
- Nicholas Nixon – inner-city development, dwarfing skyscrapers, freeways, gridded streets.
- Stephen Shore’s use of colour heightened the sense of detachment.
The inclusion of American work by Bernd and Hilla Becher – Pennsylvania salt mines and giant coal breakers – suggests ‘there was something determinedly European about this new American gaze.
O’Hagan’s view was that the work shows still looks contemporary and still seems troubling in its ‘dull reflection of the uniform and banal’. The movements influence has been pervasive, cf – Andreas Gursky; Paul Graham, Candida Hofer and Donovan Wylie.
The Exhibition marks the moment when the apparently banal became accepted as a legitimate photographic subject and a particular strand of theoretically driven photography began to permeate the wider contemporary art world carrying a political message and reflecting the growing unease about how the natural landscape was being eroded by industrial development and the spread of cities.
I looked at the work of Lewis Baltz and Stephen Shore and also read additional critiques of William Jenkins’ contention that the work of the New Topographics movement is pure, neutral and non-judgmental.
Baltz sees photography as the only deductive art – what is the camera looking at and why is he looking at that. His interest is in the commonplace and ordinary such as the houses that he and everyone else lived in. No one used to talk about this but it’s now a commonplace and trite subject matter. A lot of the world couldn’t be portrayed at that time plus there was a horror of facing the environment we had made for ourselves. Such were the fruits of mid-period American capitalism – “Well, look at them”.
There is not one task for art; many tasks. He admires beauty but as an aesthetic position will leave that for others. For him a work of art is something to think about rather than something to look at. You might ask why there are no people in his photographs, yet there is so much evidence of human effort. Baltz ends by saying that the place for people in his work is the viewer – without the viewer neither his nor anyone else’s work exists.
When I looked at some of his work on other sites I felt flat somehow – wondered if Baltz suffered from depression and this is how he saw the world. No colour – but then that was how most of photography was in the 1970s. Blank facades, no evidence of people. I found a 2014 article in the New York Times which refers to an interview in 1992:-
In the 1992 interview, he said: “Coming from Orange County, I watched the ghastly transformation of this place — the first wave of bulimic capitalism sweeping across the land, next door to me. I sensed that there was something horribly amiss and awry about my own personal environment.”
I had a closer look at Stephen Shore because he was the only person included in the Exhibition who photographed in colour. The MOMA entry describes him as “Always moving forward, never locking into a single style, and seeing each image as a problem to solve”. “His shifts between color and black and white, his use of both analog and digital technologies, and his constant variation of scale and subject have produced a visually disparate body of work in which the prevailing rule seems to be the absence of rules”. That sounds attractive at first glance – seeking clarity in an image, respecting natural light, taking as few shots as possible, but what is he showing us through his diverse approach?
As well as people and places he shows us the clutter and detritus we trail behind us – litter, plastic toys, empty cans. depopulated town centres and the effects of deindustrialization.
Shore was a pioneer of the use of colour and vernacular photography. In the 19709s and 80s he travelled through the United States, using colour, straightforward perspectives and formal composition to visually catalogue the modern American landscape. Photographers such as Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth have acknowledged his work as an inspiration. I was reminded of Exhibitions of theirs I have been to see. Very large images – larger than life sometimes – Gursky (I wrote about him here https://catherinebankslnd.wordpress.com/2018/06/09/andreas-gursky-at-the-hayward-gallery-16thapril-2018/, stringent use of composition and stylistic features – light and shadow. Creating patterns from multiple images, reducing scenes to layers and forms – giving a sense of everything being the same.
I identified with those words in the Baltz 1992 interview and his reference to ‘bulimic capitalism’. It thrives now right here in the UK.
Stephen Shore’s apparent rule of ‘the absence of rules’ sounds freeing, yet within the variety he shows us the effects of bureacratic decisions on our environments. Andreas Gursky now portraying a world where everything seems the same – no individuality.
At the moment I’m too drawn to the depressing aspect of typologies – looking for similarities in difference as if we were all electricity pylons built in different countries yet for the same purpose. I would prefer to look further to look at the differences in similarities. Yes – all the tract houses, social housing, large new private housing developments show repetitive patterns, look similar, yet they are occupied by people – living human beings, with their individual personalities, quirks, eccentricities, talents, beliefs. That’s what’s missing for me at the moment in typological approaches – going beyond the external to look at what’s beneath, inside.
I read more widely than I’ve indicated here – looking at various critiques of Jenkins’ view of New topographic. Perhaps this reading will be something I return to later in the Module.