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.

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