July – August 2009 About The Cover
Photography remembers, of course, but it can also foretell the future. With certain pictures we look back and say, “That’s when it all changed. Wasn’t it obvious?” George Eastman House, in collaboration with the Center for Creative Photography, offers a chance to see how a group of photographers prophesied our present when it restages the now-legendary exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-altered Landscape (on view through September 27, and thereafter at seven additional venues). Mounted originally in 1975, the exhibition was hardly revolutionary. Few who saw the deadpan tract houses of Joe Deal and Robert Adams, the industrial parks of Lewis Baltz, the dilapidated industrial landscapes of Bernd and Hilla Becher, and the banal road pictures of Stephen Shore imagined that this ethos of inspection would take dominion everywhere. “It was not meant to be trend-setting,” says Eastman House curator Alison Nordström. “Rather it asked the question, What can a photograph be?” But the original curator, William Jenkins, had a nose for the zeitgeist, and the answer he came up with was prescient: neither the poetry of the past generation, nor the documentary images that extolled or condemned America. Rather, as CCP curator Britt Salvesen puts it, “The exhibition embodied a belief in objectivity” and an openness before experience. The New Topographics revealed the camera’s affinity for serial imagery and its unique ability to register repetition and difference, aspects of Minimalism and conceptual art that preoccupy artists still. Take Deal, whose Untitled View (Boulder City), from 1974 occupies the cover. Deal’s 2006 exhibition at Robert Mann Gallery revealed what was only hinted in New Topographics—a strict formalism that, far from condemning an America remaking itself, reveled in the visual possibilities of the built landscape. Of all the American photographers in the show, Deal seems to have understood most clearly the importance of the Bechers’ approach, adopting a rigorously consistent point of view in order to register change more effectively. He always perches just up the hill, commanding a view of receding planes, reiterated by horizontal lines, like train tracks and roof lines, that show us space in the very process of filling up. But this picture also reveals something that our mythologizing may have obscured: the sense of humor that was everywhere in American photography at the time. Deal’s perspective deliberately slices through a mobile home, herald of trailer parks to come. “These were young men turned loose with their cameras in America,” adds Nordström, “and they were having fun.” Fun isn’t exactly the word that one applies to epigones of these photographers, Struth, Ruff, Hofer and others, but that could be because the world has become a much more crowded and impersonal place, and a joy before the object, still felt by the New Topographers, has been replaced by a mystified detachment.