Pivotal 1975 exhibition is second most-cited photography exhibition in history
Rochester, N.Y., April 2, 2009 — The landmark exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-altered Landscape — originally mounted in 1975 at George Eastman House International Museum of Photography & Film — is being recreated for an international tour by the Center for Creative Photography at The University of Arizona and George Eastman House. New Topographics signaled the emergence of a new approach to landscape photography, ultimately giving a name to a movement and style. As evidence of its influence, it is considered the second most-cited photography exhibition in the history of the medium. The New Topographics tour will open at George Eastman House June 13 (on view through Sept. 27, 2009), and then travel to eight venues in the United States and Europe.
At the core of this re-examination will be a selection of more than 100 works from the original show. The 10 photographers featured three decades ago are again gathered together: Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore, and Henry Wessel Jr. The current exhibition demonstrates both the historical significance of their photographs and the continued relevance of this work in today’s culture.
References to New Topographics — the exhibition and the style — abound in photographic practices, exhibitions, and histories. “New Topographics Photography” remains a category for art-book listings and “New Topographics” is the name of an active group on Flickr, displaying “work that shows human activity and interaction within the landscape.” In recent years The New Yorker has described “New Topographics” as “a distinct sort of landscape photography that combined a documentarian's clear-eyed sobriety with an artist's aesthetic discipline” and The New York Times noted the Eastman House exhibition “put this movement on the map.”
“Although its ambitions were hardly so grand, New Topographics has since come to be understood as marking a paradigm shift,” said Dr. Britt Salvesen, director and chief curator of the Center for Creative Photography and co-organizer of the current project. “The show occurred just as photography ceased to be an isolated, self-defined practice and took its place within the contemporary art world. Even today, the catchphrase ‘New Topographics’ — a suggestive idea more than a precise adjective — is used to characterize the work of artists not yet born when the exhibition was held. New Topographics helped to redefine American photography.”
Arguably the last traditionally photographic style, New Topographics was also the first photoconceptual style. In different ways, the artists engaged with their medium and its history. At the same time, they grappled with culturally significant contemporary issues, such as environmentalism, objectivity, and national identity. In an Artweek review in 1975, critic Robert Woolard called the exhibition “very important,” and its ideas “vital and fundamental.”
“The question persists as to why this unassuming exhibition came to be so widely known and understood as the seminal event in which photography’s landscape paradigm shifted away from the sublime, ushering in a new era of theoretical approaches,” said Dr. Alison Nordstr�m, curator of photographs at George Eastman House, who is co-organizing the exhibition with Salvesen. “Of those who did see the exhibition, few seem to have thought themselves in the presence of a turning point; paradigm shifts are rarely recognized except in retrospect.”
The influence of New Topographics can be traced by looking again at the original pictures and at the circumstances in which the 10 artists were brought together. At the core of this re-examination will be the works from the 1975 show, which was curated by William Jenkins in collaboration with the artists. Jenkins’s concept achieved currency primarily through the exhibition catalogue (which today is being sold at rare-book sales for upwards of $1,000, far beyond its original $6.95 price tag). “By revisiting the photographs, we can assess their cumulative effect and consider their impact as objects,” Salvesen said. “This reprise also provides a unique opportunity to assess the original exhibition’s aims, consider its influence on young photographers today, and examine the international implications of an American impulse in photography.”
This presentation of New Topographics will also include prints and books by other relevant artists to provide additional historical and contemporary context. Timothy O’Sullivan appears in his role as a 19th-century precursor cited by both Adams and Baltz, while Walker Evans illustrates the idea of “documentary style” that he introduced to American photography in the 1930s. The conceptual aspect of New Topographics is illuminated by the photo-based books of Ed Ruscha, a key figure in Jenkins’s catalogue essay; Robert Smithson’s Instamatic snapshots of defiantly anti-monumental sites; and Dan Graham’s magazine layout/slide show Homes for America; and the groundbreaking 1972 study Learning from Las Vegas, by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour.
The new presentation and international tour of New Topographics is as follows: George Eastman House �(June 13–Oct. 4,2009); Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Oct. 25, 2009–Jan. 3, 2010); Center for Creative Photography (Feb. 19–May 16, 2010); San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (July 17–Oct. 3, 2010); Landesgalerie Linz, Austria (Nov. 10, 2010–Jan. 9, 2011), Photographische Sammlung Stiftung Kultur, Cologne (Jan. 27–April 3, 2011); Jeu de Paume, Paris (April 11–June 12, 2011); and the Nederlands Fotomuseum Rotterdam, the Netherlands (July 2–Sept. 11, 2011); and Bilbao Fine Arts Museum, Bilbao (November 2011–January 2012).
The new presentation and international tour of New Topographics is made possible by a generous grant from the Terra Foundation for American Art. A catalogue is being published by Steidl and CCP in conjunction with the exhibition, featuring a primary essay by Salvesen, which traces the prevailing cultural and aesthetic ideas that gave rise to the exhibition, as well as the interconnections between the participants, and offers a broad-based view of the photography world in the mid-1970s. Also featured will be an essay by Nordstr�m outlining the significance of New Topographics in Eastman House’s history and influence on photographic history to date.