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

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