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New Topographics by Britt Salvesen

An elegiac inventory of a vanishing industrial world, and the one supplanting it

In 1975 a show with the unappealing title New Topographics appeared at just three modest venues in the US. Thirty-five years later, a new version of the same exhibition is travelling to eight notable institutions, from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to the Nederlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam, and this weighty book accompanies it. Clearly that first show struck a chord.

Subtitled Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, it featured the work of 10 photographers. All are American, apart from German duo Bernd and Hilla Beche. Except for the studied neutrality of their approach, the Bechers weren’t truly representative of the work in New Topographics. While they compiled an elegiac inventory of a vanishing industrial world, the other participants looked more at the one supplanting it.

Robert Adams shows us settlements of trailers sprawling across a plain in Colorado. In the distance is a range of mountains that earlier photographers would have turned into a romantic wilderness; Adams, by contrast, ensures we see power cables and tiny patio gardens that refute any sense of grandeur.

Lewis Baltz studies a typical business park, where the minimalist anonymity of the buildings is offset by the debris of construction. Frank Gohlke focuses on the spread of asphalt, while Joe Deal finds elevated viewpoints to gaze at in the steady annexation of land in Albuquerque. Throughout, the stress is on prosaic everyday scenes, not least in Stephen Shore’s colour images of small towns in Montana or Texas; though perhaps these now have a period charm as emblems of a less-developed America.

All 168 photographs in the 1975 show are reproduced in the book, but few visitors to the original exhibition could have guessed how ubiquitous the New Topographics stance would become. For instance, a big show in 2008, Nature as Artifice: New Dutch Landscape in Photography and Video Art, featured artists mostly working in a ‘documentary’ spirit, while some pupils of the Bechers now command enormous prices.

When the offbeat becomes so orthodox or attracts so many dollars, it can lose its edge. I hope that doesn’t happen
with work in New Topographics, because it still acts as a mirror to the world we’re constructing - and a far from flattering one at that.

New Topographics

Author: Britt Salvesen

Publisher: Steidl, 2009

Price: £44

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