Thursday, October 9, 2008

New Topographics Part 2 of 2

the continuation of the New Topographics essay....

The word topography is in general use today in connection with the making of maps or with land as described by maps and it does not unduly stretch the imagination to see all photographs as maps of a sort. But for the sake of clarity a return to the original meaning may be helpful: "The detailed and accurate description of a particular place, city, town, district, state, parish or tract of land." The important word is description for although photography is thought to do many things to and for its subjects, what it does first and best is describe them.
Unfortunately, the simple descriptive function of the photographic image is linked to other, more complex issues. The last exhibition of current photography presented at the International Museum of Photography ("The Extended Document," February-May, 1975) dealt with artists who were actively, through their work, questioning the photograph's veracity. Such concerns stemmed from a recognition that it is precisely photography's pretense of truthfulness, it's assertion of accuracy that gives it the ability to mislead so effectively. The issue was not that photographs are inherently untruthful, but that the relationship between a subject and a picture of that subject is extremely fragile. The simple task of describing something photographically requires that this delicate coherence be preserved.

---There is something paradoxical in the way that documentary photographs interact with our notions of reality. To function as documents at all they must first persuade us that they describe their subject accurately and objectively; in fact, their initial task is to convince their audience that they are truly documents, that the photographer has fully exercised his powers of observation and description and has set aside his imaginings and prejudices. The ideal photographic document would appear to be without author or art. Yet of course photographs, despite their verisimilitude, are abstractions; their information is selective and incomplete.
-Lewis Baltz

If then, as Lewis Baltz suggests, the photograph needs to appear without author in order to function well and maintain veracity, what has become of style? Is it possible to negate style, to make a photograph that is style-less? When Timothy O'Sullivan photographed the American West he was working without precedent. Many of his subjects had never been photographed and he was working in a medium which had virtually no past. It would therefore be possible to conclude that O'Sullivan and other photographers of the early and mid-nineteenth century neither embraced nor rejected any existing photographic style or aesthetic: that they had no style. (Even this is questionable since they were subject to varying degrees of visual prescription from painting.) It is, however, impossible to imagine the photographers in this exhibition working in a critical and historical vacuum. To recognize one's antecedents (as Robert Adams has done) and to elect to make pictures that look a certain way is a stylistic decision, even if the effort is to subdue the intrusion of style in the picture.

---In making these photographs I attempted to make a series of images in which one image is equal in weight or appearance to another. Many of the conscious decisions made while the series was evolving had to do with denying the uniqueness in subject matter or in one exposure as opposed to another in the belief that the most extraordinary images might be the most prosaic, with a minimum of interference (i.e. personal preference, moral judgement) by the photographer. An early decision was that a formal undifferentiated approach be used 'as a plate on which to serve up the subject matter,' so as to minimize the formal decisions which recur every time an exposure is made. The approach chosen accommodated my desire for less personal intrusion and greater uniformity. 1) By being at a greater distance from my subject matter it became difficult to significantly alter the angle of view or organization of the image by a step or two in any direction; 2) the point of view and distance from the subject allowed an acceptance by the lens of a greater amount of contextual information without allowing too great a dominance of one object over another. The elimination of the vagaries of sky and horizon is partly an attempt to fill the frame and create a self-contained, undifferentiated space, and is also the elimination of a familiar clue to scale and orientation, and to that extent indicates the degree of ground-directedness of these photographs. Beyond that they are pure subject matter.
-Joe Deal - June, 1975

---Pictures should look like they were easily taken. Otherwise beauty in the world is made to seem elusive and rare, which it is not.
I admire the work of many photographers, but none more than that of O'Sullivan and Lange.
By Interstate 70: a dog skeleton, a vacuum cleaner, TV dinners, a doll, a pie, rolls of carpet... Later, next to the South Platte River: algae, broken concrete, jet contrails, the smell of crude oil... What I hope to document, thought not at the expense of surface detail, is the Form that underlies this apparent chaos.

-Robert Adams - June 1, 1975

It must be made clear that "New Topographics" is not an attempt to validate one category of pictures to the exclusions of others. As individuals the photographers take great pains to prevent the slightest trace of judgement or opinion from entering their work. The pictures may occasionally become analytical as in the case of the Bechers' recent work from Pennsylvania. The Typology of Coal Breakers is a form of historical analysis and the House Near Kutztown, Pennsylvania a kind of formal analysis. But this process does not culminate in conclusion or judgement. The Bechers are content with observation. This viewpoint, which extends throughout the exhibition, is anthropological rather than critical, scientific rather than artistic. The exhibition, as an entity separate from the photographers, will hopefully carry the same non-judgemental connotation as the pictures which comprise it. If "New Topographics" has a central purpose it is simply to postulate, at least for the time being, what it means to make a documentary photograph.
-William Jenkins, Assistant Curator, 20th Century Photography.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

New Topographics Part 1

I was talking to a bunch of friends in the beginning of the summer and realized that a lot of people may have never read the New Topographics essay. So here it is...
Part 1

NEW TOPOGRAPHICS - Photographs of a Man-altered Landscape

...I should try to tell, in a straightforward way, plain stories, so that I will try to get away from mazes, from mirrors, from daggers, from tigers, because all of those things now grow a bit of a bore to me. So that I will try to write a book, a book so good that nobody will think I have written it. I would write a book -I won't say in somebody else's style-but in the style of anybody else.
-Jorge Luis Borges

There is little doubt that the problem at the center of this exhibition is one of style. It should therefore be stated at the outset that while this introduction will concern itself with the exhibition as a stylistic event, the actual photographs are far richer in meaning and scope than the simple making of an aesthetic point. Sr. Borges has stated his ambitions in terms of stylistic anonymity, but such an intention merely provides a framework within which he will continue to write, perhaps not about tigers and daggers, but about something other than the work itself.

This point is made first because the stylistic context within which all of the work in the exhibition has been made is so coherent and so apparent that it appears to be the most significant aspect of the photographs. It would seem logical to regard these pictures as the current manifestations of a picture-making attitude that began in the early nineteen sixties with Edward Ruscha. His books of photographs (Twentysix Gasoline Stations [1962], Some Los Angeles Apartments [1965], and others) possessed at once the qualities of rigorous purity, deadpan humor and a casual disregard for the importance of the images which even permitted the use of photographs not made by Ruscha himself. 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. Regardless of the subject matter the appearance of neutrality was strictly maintained. Ruscha made his point with such clarity and renown that his importance as an antecedent to the work under discussion should be obvious. Yet the issue suggested by this relationship is a very difficult and critical one.

There is an obvious visual link between Ruscha's work and the pictures shown here. Both function with a minimum of inflection in the sense that the photographers' influence on the look of the subject is minimal. Frank Gohlke feels that much of this sense of neutrality lies in the way the edges of the picture function and that the work in the show (including his own) maintains an essentially passive frame. That is, rather that the picture having been created by the frame, there is a sense of the frame having been laid on an existing scene without interpreting it very much. The exhibitors also share subject matter with Ruscha, picturing, almost without exception, man-made structures within larger contexts such as landscapes.

Yet there remains an essential and significant difference between Ruscha's Twentysix Gasoline Stations and, as an example, John Schott's undetermined number of motels along Route 66. The nature of this difference is found in an understanding of the difference between what a picture is of and what it is about. Ruscha's pictures of gasoline stations are not about gasoline stations but about a set of aesthetic issues. John Schott summarized the position neatly "... the [Ruscha's pictures] are not statements about the world through art, they are statements about art through the world."

I have deliberately chosen to belabor the Ruscha issue because that distinction, though elusive, is fundamental to photography. The two distinct and often separate entities of actual, physical subject matter and conceptual or referential subject matter can be made to coincide. It is this coincidence-the making of a photograph which is primarily about that which is in front of the lens-that is the central factor in the making of a document.

---The world is infinitely more interesting than any of my opinions concerning it. This is not a description of a style or an artistic posture, but my profound conviction. The fictional properties of even the most utilitarian photograph suggest the difficulty of coming to a genuine understanding of the medium's paradoxes, let alone its power. As it is somewhere on a cloudy continuum between the literary and the painterly, so likewise does it hover between fact and point of view. I love the contradictions of photography. Each successful photograph balances content with form and truth with aspect, using a solution unique to itself. While describing something that matters with clarity, economy and force seems to be photography's perennial aesthetic, how this comes about remains for most a private and, for the most part, intuitive matter. The best photographs are transparent, sensual, intelligent, fulfilled, freshly arrived, enduring and, in the deepest sense, are of the world
-Nicholas Nixon, June 3, 1975 be continued