Category Archives: Part 2

Exercise 2:3 Typologies

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:-

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Topographic

Some definitions:

  1. Detailed, precise description of a place or region.
  2. Graphic representation of the surface features of a place or region on a map, indicating their relative positions and elevations.
  3. A description or an analysis of a structured entity, showing the relations among its components
  4. The surface features of a place or region
  5. The surface features of an object.
  6. the surveying of the features of a place or region
  7. 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.

Typologies

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.

Lewis Baltz

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.”

Stephen Shore 

https://www.moma.org/artists/5409?locale=en

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.

Thoughts

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.

 

 

 

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Exercise 2.2: Explore a road

This gave me an opportunity to drag myself out of the woods and think about the built environment. The first part of the exercise is to take a new look at familiar surroundings and the second is to write a short review of a ‘road movie’ of my choice focusing on how the road features in the film’s narrative.

Part One: My Road

My walking route took me firstly from the nearby copse to walk into the village centre and on another day to walk from the recreation ground/memorial fields to the main road which I then crossed into the village centre.

 

 

On the first occasion I was aware how I was paying closer attention to the road and its buildings. There was yet another sign indicating pending roadworks. I don’t think there has ever been a clear road around Ottershaw since we moved there. I was surprised as well when we moved here to find some light industry such as building supplies and haulage firms and I mused as I walked now whether they would disappear in the light of the push to build new houses to meet government quotas. The small nursery and pre-school caught my eye.  This is in an old school house which I think was a school in earlier days and I hoped that this bit of history wouldn’t disappear into new housing.

Around the corner and there was a building that’s been on my mind for a long time.  It used to be a County Council residential home for the elderly then, under new structuring, it became ‘an elderly resource centre’ before coming up for sale.  It looks as if I’s closed but I can’t be sure as cars are parked there.  So far as I’m concerned it’s an example of changes in social care and the removal of local care for elderly people.  I mean, what better place could there be than to be somewhere near to family and in the centre of the community. I’m guessing it’s likely to be turned into an expensive nursing home where only the rich can go.  I hope I’m wrong I really do. Walking on I noticed another house for sale sign and wondered how much they were asking.

On the second occasion I thought the memorial plaque at the first entrance to the memorial fields was worthy of attention.  Apparently there used to be another memorial at the crossroads further along but it was moved when the roundabout was built.  The roundabout was built in the 1940s (more of that later) to control the amount of traffic caused by the fact that the main road (A320) was the major road leading from Woking down towards the hospital and Chertsey.  The road is even busier now we have the M25 nearby, plus the prospect of new and large housing developments.  This likely to cause much greater congestion and the planners’ solution is to re-build the roundabout eight times larger and re-site it a little further down the road, removing our local car park used by shoppers who live too far away to walk and also users of the Village Hall (Brook Hall). I’ve written about this before so won’t repeat further. The village also has a Social Club (founded in 1883 ) and, very near the roundabout, a Carter & Miller Steak House – fairly new and replacing a Harvesters which itself replaced an old pub “The Otter” which I remember from the late 1970s

There are also other older buildings that still stand and are used for other purposes.  The old dairy is now an estate agents and the blacksmith’s foundry now hosts a family-owned used car sales business.

Below are further contact sheets identifying my areas of interest/current concerns.

 

 

Of those I think that a wider audience might be interested in new/continuing use for old buildings or how villages are affected by the growth in urban sprawl.

Part Two: Road Movie

I’ve expanded on the objectives here as there are three movies that interested me for different reasons.

Ottershaw Roundabout

A while ago I came across an old film b y British Pathe The Battle For Beauty (1940-1949) –  whilst looking for old photographs of Ottershaw on the internet. A real find because it was about residents’ feelings when the current Ottershaw roundabout was being built.  This is a great resource if I ever get to do a series on the proposed new roundabout. Only time will tell!

London Road (2015)

This is a verbatim-theatre film musical adaptation and book of a play that was a success at the National Theatre. Verbatim theatre is one where the text is generated from interviews with ‘real-life’ people and the book and lyrics of London Road are based on Alecky Blythe’s extensive recorded interviews with the real residents of London Road, Ipswich and the composer Adam Cork’s score is a response to the melodic and rhythmic speech patterns captured on those recordings.  The film stars Tom Hardy. Olivia Colman, Anita Dobson and the entire original cast of the National Theatre Production. It traces the impact on the community around London Road, Ipswich of a series of murders committed by Steve Wright (the occupant of No. 79) and the frenzied media interest that followed. I haven’t seen the play or film and, to be honest, when watching the various videos I found on You Tube, I felt rather put-off by the sing-song effect of the score. Maybe it’s something you have to listen to for a while to get used to and appreciate.

What interested me was the text generated from interviews with ‘real life’ people which of course, lends itself well to either video or a photo-book with captions.  Also, this is a story about a road, the people who lived there and had to cope with a traumatic event, and how they healed and came together again through a gardening project.

 

Locke (2013)

This is a two hour ‘road’ film with only one person, Locke (Tom Hardy again) seen on camera. Locke is a happily married man with two sons, except that he had a one-night stand with Bethan, a work colleague, seven months ago and she became pregnant. Bethan has gone into premature labour and is in a London hospital and desperate for him to be there at the birth as she has no family to support her. Locke has never forgiven his own father for abandoning him as a child and is determined not to make the same mistake himself even though he has no ongoing relationship with or any particular feelings for Bethan.

All this happens the night before he has to supervise a large concrete pour in Birmingham – the largest non-nuclear facility pour in European history.  Despite this and the fact that his family are eagerly waiting for him to go home and watch an important football match, Locke decides he must go to the hospital.

This complex plot is revealed through the thirty-six  phone calls that Locke has with family, work colleagues, his deceased father, Bethan and hospital personnel during the course of his two hour-drive to London. All the action takes place in his car, driving in the dark, with lights of oncoming cars flashing in his face, and also on the tears in his eyes as time goes on, with the lights of roads and cities outside creating double exposures which mirror the competing demands on him. Locke remains outwardly calm throughout whilst chaos surrounds him – fielding frantic calls from his assistant who he coaches through preparing for the pour; pleading phone calls from Bethan; his sons regaling him with progress in the football match, and his wife, Katrina, collapsing on the news of this impending birth and telling him not to bother coming home.

The film ends as Locke drives through the hospital grounds shortly after receiving a phone call from Bethan sharing the sounds of the baby, having had a successful caesarean birth.

I was surprised how this film held my attention throughout. It’s all quite nail-biting. Will his wife let him home, “I want to know that I will still be driving back when the sun comes up” to which his wife’s response is that she’s tired of his focus on the job, plus “You leave concrete wherever you go” which seems to have deep undercurrents given his stoic demeanour as he voices “I’m trying to fix it”.  Will the concrete get poured; will Locke get to the hospital without crashing; will be baby be born okay?  All this achieved, I think, by the steadiness and strength of Hardy’s voice and presence, plus the chaos signified by the flashing lights and looming vehicles.

Of course, something along those themes could be devised through video work but can it be done through photography?  There would need to be a fixed camera looking inside/outside.  I know iPhones have been used, also cameras like the Go-Pro. Presentation maybe through a slideshow/video with soundtrack, captions at the side. Something to think about.

 

Exercise 2:1: Territorial Photography

 

Part 2 – Landscape as Journey

Project : Surveys

Exercise 2:1 – Territorial Photography

Read an essay by Joel Snyder in Mitchell, W.J.T. (ed) (2002)Landscape and Power, Chicago. The University of Chicago Press. Summarise key points then find and evaluate two photographs by any of the photographers Snyder mentions.

The book was first published in 1994 and was said to reshape the direction of landscape studies by looking at landscape not as something to be seen or a text to be read but as an instrument of cultural force, a central tool in the creation of national and social identities. Joel Snyder is a photographer and member of the art History faculty at the University of Chicago. Expert in the history of photography, and the theory of photograph and film.  His aims in this essay are:-

  • To probe the motivating factors behind two American western landscape practices of the 1860s and 1870s in order to come to some understanding of why these photographic landscapes look the way they do.
  • To emphasize the specificity of approaches to photographic landscape in the period between 1860 and 1880

I’m presuming that it also forms part of the ongoing debate about the nature of photography and whether it is Science or Art and, if the latter,  what fits into what genre and why plus should it appear in the Gallery or a Museum. I  am also viewing it in relation to the essay by Rosalind Krauss Photography’s Discursive Spaces(1982)  which I wrote about here 

Summary

Snyder gives a brief history of Photography’s early development up to the late 1850s and I have summarized these by creating a force field analysis – it’s quite basic but working at it helped to get timeline changes in my head.

Snyder goes on to further explore  two differing American landscape practices through case studies of Carleton Watkins and Timothy 0’Sullivan and the role each of them played as photographers with exploration surveys in the American west.

Main points

Carleton Watkins and Yosemite

Carleton Watkins acquired photography skills when he was taken on to work in a San Francisco Studio two years after travelling there in the hopes of finding gold. He travelled to Yosemite and produced some of the first photographs seen in the East. Subsequently Watkins worked on commission for the California State Geological Survey, mining and lumber interests and, by the 1860s, for the Pacific railroads. Within his images he harmonized the landscape with industrial progress – playing man-made designs against the natural environment in his compositions; reducing highlights and shadows to a smooth continuum or producing rich mid-tones.

Watkins’s audience were encouraged to see the land as a site for potential development whilst being offered reassurance that it could withstand endless mass migration and industrial exploitation.  There was no recognition of the land’s original inhabitants who lived in mean reservations away from it.

Watkins combined technical excellence with conventions derived from picturesque and sublime modes of landscape depiction.  He was emulated by nearly every important photographer of the American West up to and including Ansel Adams and thus set the standard for commercial landscape photographers of the American West.  Neither Watkins nor his audience thought of his work in terms of art-historical analysis and there was no recognition that he might have created his images to produce particular impressions in viewers. His images were instrumental in the fight to preserve Yosemite as a national park and one of its many mountains is named Mount Watkins in his honour.

(Carleton Watkins, Yosemite Valley 1865)

A rolling landscape, harmonious tones, soft water reflections. Depicting a place where the visitor could sit and contemplate peaceful surroundings.

Timothy O’Sullivan

Much less is known about Timothy O’Sullivan, although he is known to have worked for Matthew Brady, one of the earliest American photographers, as a teenager.  He was subsequently commissioned in the Union Army then rejoined Brady’s team after his honourable discharge. Following this he followed John Pope’s Northern Virginia Campaign and subsequently had photographs published in the first Civil War photographs collection after joining another studio – that of Alexander Gardner, who published the Collection. It has been written that O’Sullivan moved beyond traditional war images, which usually portrayed armies at rest to capture instead the grim and gruesome realities of armed warfare.

From 1867 to 1869, O’Sullivan was the official photographer on the United States Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel, under the direction of A.A. Humphreys by Clarence King, his job being to photograph the West to attract settlers. O’Sullivan later acted as photographer with the team searching for a canal route in Panama and was subsequently associated with a series of surveys in the southwestern United States, during which time he also photographed Native Americans. On his return East he was appointed first photographer for the newly established United States Geological Survey and, in 1880, on the recommendations of Brady, King and Gardner, was appointed chief photographer for the Department of the Treasury. He died of tuberculosis at the age of 42.

This website notes that “More so than other western expeditionary photographers, Timothy O’Sullivan explored alternative strategies of photographic composition …… through the conscious ordering and visual presentation of bold forms, which emphasized the abstract qualities of the landscape.”

Snyder describes O’Sullivan’s work as being ‘singular’ as opposed to that of other Western photographers as his images portray a bleak, inhospitable and god-forsaken land.

I have previously written here concerning Rosalind Krauss’s 1982 analysis of O’Sullivan’s photographs in relation to her criticism of the way in which photography historians in the 1980s were attempting to disassemble and then reassemble the photographic archive. She compares a print of a photograph (1868) and a lithographic copy of it produced for a book, Clarence King’s Systematic Geology (1878) asserting that the print belongs to science whereas the photograph operates with 19tcentury discourse – itself organized around an exhibition space – its wall. Her view was that O’Sullivan was a maker of scientific “views” and not of landscapes.

Joel Snyder refers to Krauss’s view in his essay and states that it is correct if the claim is that O’Sullivan did not conceive of his work in the same way, but Krauss claims that the scientific nature of O’Sullivan’s photographs somehow precludes an investigation of their pictorial character. The problem for him is that Krauss’s view assumes what is to be proved in that it assumes O’Sullivan went to the West as a scientist and his enterprise was scientific in character.  However, both of his chiefs argued that photography was incapable of producing pictures useful for scientific purposes so each of them needed topographical draftsmen as well.

Snyder points out that, if we dismiss Krauss’s claim, we are left with no explanation of what O’Sullivan was doing in the West. For Snyder, the short answer is that O’Sullivan was making illustrations for the interim and final reports published by the surveys, and the long answer was that he was making illustrations for an audience of two – his two chiefs –  his job being to provide generally descriptive photographs of the places he visited, which function to give a sense of the area but not to be used for the findings of the various authors of the reports.

Snyder explains that very few of the photographs reached an audience of non-professionals and they dropped from sight until Ansel Adams discovered a handful in 1939 which he sent to Beaumont Newhall, then acting curator of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City. Adams described them as “technically deficient ……. But nonetheless, surrealistic and disturbing”. Beaumont Newhall viewed the photographs as prototypical modernist photographic landscapes and published them in some of his histories. Therefore, O’Sullivan’s photographs entered into the modernist history of photography where they have remained. Having used the photograph Sand Dunes near Carson City (1867) to analyse how O’Sullivan achieved the composition and the placements of human figures as being dwarfed by immense vistas that obliterate individuality. Snyder goes further.

He suggests that each type of photograph – either refusing to bow to the conventions of contemporary landscape photography (O’Sullivan) or exemplifying the values found in the work of many other western photographers (Carleton Watkins, William Henry Jackson or others) served the interests of the expeditionary leaders. Whilst Watkins et al portrayed the landscape as a scene of potential habitation and exploitation, O’Sullivan’s photographs present the interior as ‘terra incognito’ and this fitted Clarence King’s belief that the inhospitable territory of Shoshone required a field of potential scientific enquiry that was properly the jurisdiction of scientific experts rather than the previous military explorers.  Joel Snyder believes that O’Sullivan’s photographs mark the beginning of a continuing era in which expert skills provide the sole means of access to what was part of our common inheritance.

There’s a very interesting essay here  by Frank Goodyear (2011) which looks at an early photograph of Shoshone Falls (which might include William Henry Jackson)  and uses it to gain insights “into photography’s role in mediating the public’s understanding of the American West and in concealing/revealing the diverse populations and complex network of interconnected relationships that existed in southern Idaho during the 1870s. Shoshone Falls is apparently thirty-six feet higher than Niagara Falls and known for its sublime beauty. Bringing home photographs of it was vital to record the achievement of those who climbed and photographed it and their role in opening up the territory.

Goodyear quotes a remark by one of the members of Clarence King’s party “there is in the entire region of the falls such wildness of beauty that a feeling pervades the mind almost unconsciously that you are, if not the first white man who has ever trod that trail, certainly one of the very few who have ventured so far (2011:272) and Goodyear goes on to describe the methods used to convey this sentiment – a single individual within the larger view (even though there were16 people in all in the party) with the single individual acting as a surrogate for the viewer of the image. e.g.

View of Shoshone Canyon and Falls – in the Idaho Territory, in 1868
(Timothy H. O’Sullivan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

And there is one in a similar vein here of the Grand Canyon with the small figures dwarfed by rocks.

Wall in the Grand Canyon, Colorado River – in the Idaho territory in 1868
(Timothy H. O’Sullivan: Google Art Project)

 

Thoughts

  • Timothy O’Sullivan had been a war photographer – perhaps seeing such gruesome sights caused him to suffer from post-traumatic disorder and contributed towards a depressive apprehension of the landscapes he photographed.
  • At the same time, how could his views be described ‘scientific’ when he was conveying a ‘feeling’ towards the environment and using specific methods to do so?
  • Perhaps Timothy O’Sullivan was one of those artists who were un-regarded at the time because his photographic vision was different from that of most of the others.
  • Perhaps he really was a forerunner of the modernist style or of documentary photography.Maybe even photo-journalism considering his war photographs taken on the battlefield.
  • The discussions around both photographers highlight the way in which historians and critics of photography apportion photographers to contemporary styles/genres which did not exist during that photographer’s life style.
  • Reading about these photographers reminded me of all the different techniques which can be used to compose and convey the sense of a place that the photographer wishes to impart.
  • I’m taking note of this continuing debate around photography and what should or shouldn’t be either considered art or to ‘fit’ in the gallery.

 

 

Reference

Frank H. Goodyear III (2011): An Early Photograph of Shoshone Falls: Uncovering a Network of Communities in 1870s Idaho, History of Photography, 35:3, 269-280