Bernd and Hilla Becher

Typological method

The Bechers’ grids pose questions about the nature of photography – as documentary collections of images of the world. They use a consistent technique (they used a 10” x 8” camera) applied to similar, or specific types of subjects – particularly functional industrial structures. The subtle individualities of these emerge through meticulous visual scrutiny of each, combined with repetition and juxtaposition as a pattern of the whole.

Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts (2011, p.194) describe the visual effect of one of their collections:

“The effect of this repeated pattern was very powerful. A single cooling tower may look beautiful, but nine cooling towers on one sheet looks like a series of ancient monoliths, or temples, or plinths for statues of long forgotten gods.”

At the very least, the Bechers’ typologies stand for deeper concerns about the essence of photography, particularly about ideas relating to the medium and its practitioners as collectors – gathering, arranging and archiving visual information about the world.
[See David Campany’s essay ‘Almost the same thing: some thoughts on the collector-photographer’ in Dexter, E. & Weski, T. (eds.) (2003) Cruel and Tender: The Real in the Twentieth-Century Photograph. London: Tate Publishing]

The Photographic Comportment of Bernd and Hilla Becher, Blake Stimson, 1 April 2004 Tate Papers Issue 1

The Bechers present modern industry in a manner that disavows its social, political and economic value to the beholder and, in so doing, makes it available anew via an alternative category – aesthetic value or value ‘without any interest’.

.. the pattern of ‘rhythms and repetitions’ established between the individual pictures (and, we might add, between individual series as well) is’very much the idea of the work.’ Such, the artists have admitted, is their goal – ‘to produce a more or less perfect chain of different forms and shapes’… 

Their system is based on a rigorous set of procedural rules: a standardised format and ratio of figure to ground, a uniformly level, full-frontal view, near-identical flat lighting conditions or the approximation of such conditions in the photographic processing, a consistent lack of human presence, a consistent use of the restricted chromatic spectrum offered by black and white photography rather than the broad range given by colour, precise uniformity in print quality, sizing, framing and presentation, and a shared function for all the structures photographed for a given series. There is another obvious rule too, although one their project might be said to systematically ignore – their industrial history is exclusively and resolutely a history of the west…. The term they generally use to describe their method is ‘typological’ and they freely state that it has ’much to do with the nineteenth century’, that is, they say, with ‘the encyclopaedic approach’ used, for example, in botany or zoology or, we might add, psychology and criminology. Indeed, we might say more broadly, their system is based precisely on the principle of the archive – its ‘dry compartmentalisation’, as Allan Sekula has put it – that so concerned Michel Foucault.

The New Topographics

Bernd and Hilla Becher were the only non-American contributors to New Topographics.  The Bechers’ contribution  was a grid consisting of multiple views of a coal processing plant in Pennsylvania.

They inspired a generation of students who studied under them in the late1970s and 80s at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, including Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff and Thomas Struth.

 

New Topographics

The most significant influence on contemporary landscape practice was the exhibition“New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape” was  curated by William Jenkins at the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House (Rochester, New York) in January 1975. The exhibition was intended for a gallery audience and subverted traditional notions of landscape photography in favour of a new kind of sublime: the man-made landscape. In his introduction to the catalogue, Jenkins defined the common denominator of the show as “a problem of style:” “stylistic anonymity”, an alleged absence of style. The exhibition was received negatively at the time, for its bleak celebration of what was considered ordinary and banal.

The exhibition was a reaction to the idealised landscape photography  of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston and was influenced by Ed Ruscha who, in the 60s, had made a series of artist’s books with self-explanatory titles such as Twentysix Gasoline Stations, Some Los Angeles Apartments, Every Building on the Sunset Strip and  Walker Evans, who had photographed the vernacular iconography of America in road signs, billboards, motels and shop.

“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,.” “[…] rigorous purity, deadpan humor and a casual disregard for the importance of the images.” Technically, half the photographers were working with 8″×10″; (20 cm × 25 cm) large format view cameras; those who were not were using either square medium format (Deal, Gohlke), or in the case of Baltz, 35 mm Technical Pan, a slow and high-definition Kodak film that the photographer printed on 8″x10″ paper. Only Baltz and Wessel were using regular 35 mm cameras and film. A notable element of the show was that the artists were, or would be, linked with higher education as students, professors, or both—a change from the preceding generations.The shift from craft or self-teaching to academia had somewhat been started by photographers such as Ansel Adams and Minor White, but the new generation was turning away from the approach of these forebears. This was illustrated by the subject matter that the New Topographics chose as well as their commitment to casting a somewhat ironic or critical eye on what American society had become. They all depicted urban or suburban realities under changes in an allegedly detached approach. In most cases, they gradually revealed themselves as coming from rather critical vantage points, especially Robert Adams, Baltz, and Deal.

Photographers

Sean O’Hagan

The show consisted of 168 rigorously formal, black-and-white prints of streets, warehouses, city centres, industrial sites and suburban houses. Taken collectively, they seemed to posit an aesthetic of the banal. …Their stark, beautifully printed images of this mundane but oddly fascinating topography was both a reflection of the increasingly suburbanised world around them, and a reaction to the tyranny of idealised landscape photography that elevated the natural and the elemental.

The prints were in a 20 cm × 25 cm (8″×10″) format except for Joe Deal (32 cm × 32 cm), Gohlke (24 cm × 24 cm – close enough to 8”×10”), and the Bechers with typical European (for the time) 30 cm × 40 cm prints.

However despite their similarities, there were significant differences between the photographers in their reactions to, and portrayal of, the suburban environment and their political conclusions on responses to it.

See Greg Foster-Price and John Rohrbach ‘Re-framing the New Topographics’ 2013 University of Chicago Press

Robert Adams: disappearing wildernesses, pointed his camera at eerily empty streets, pristine trailer parks, rows of standardised tract houses, the steady creep of suburban development in all its regulated uniformity.

Lewis Baltz: stark photographs of the walls of office buildings and warehouses on industrial sites in Orange County.

Joe Deal

Frank Gohlke

Nicholas Nixon: innercity development: skyscrapers that dwarfed period buildings, freeways, gridded streets and the palpable unreality of certain American cities in which pedestrians seem like interlopers.

John Schott

Stephen Shore : shot in colour. It seemed to heighten the sense of detachment in his photographs of anonymous intersections and streets.

Henry Wessel, Jr

Bernd and Hilla Becher: stark images of Pennsylvania salt mines and giant coal breakers were as coolly architectural as their images of German cooling towers and industrial plants. The suggestion was that there was something determinedly European about this new American gaze.

Ecological citizenship and automobility

The works in different ways question our responsibility in relation to the natural environment. Taken at a time of rapid environmental change, commercialisation and often homogenised destruction of the natural wilderness romanticised by Ansel Adams, they aim to promote a sense of responsibility for what Robert Adams calls the ‘half wilderness’.

There is a general concern with the homogenisation and also isolation of much of modern construction and urban sprawl. Roads that cut of and surround dwellings that can only be accessed by cars.

They differ in their approaches to technological advances like the reliance on the motor car. For Shore and Schott however there is more of a celebration of the accessibility and democratisation of life. Shore in particular celebrates the colour and vibrancy of cities and parking lots.

‘Shore’s images may be seen as ignoring environmental degradation…Yet his photographs encourage a sense of wonder and appreciation, even in the most familiar, most mundane spaces’.

There is thus a core message of the exhibition as a whole: we need to notice and appreciate what is around us in the ‘semi-wilderness’ and make sure we preserve and protect what is valuable in it. In terms of human colour and nature. Not relegate ‘conservation’ to an ever-shrinking small protected area of idealised wilderness. It is all important.

Legacy

The exhibition was recreated in various locations: in 1981, six years after its original presentation, it was shown in reduced form at the Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol, UK, under the auspices of Paul Graham and Jem Southam. A large scale presentation of the exhibition was organized in 2009 at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson. “New Topographics” began an international tour in 2009, with stagings at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In 2011 the exhibition was on view at the Nederlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam, Netherlands, and later at the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum in Spain.

Baltz, Gohlke, and Shore were later commissioned by the French government for the Mission de la DATAR.

The exhibition was very influential in the subsequent developments in both US and European landscape photography, including the work of Andreas Gursky, Paul Graham,  Candida Höfe and  Donovan Wylie.  See the following interviews with LA photographers discussing how they have been influenced by the photographers at the exhibition:

John Schott

John Schott website

The New Topographics

His 20 images of motels show the buildings – mostly one-story with adjacent parking lots – located in comfortable surroundings, showing the relationship between the buildings and natural environment. They do not have the harsh angularity of many of the other images from the exhibition. Although the images suggest that cars are the only way to get there (they are motels after all!), there is no critique implied of that reliance. The motels themselves are not homogenised or standardised; they have distinctive architectural features and are not owned by corporate chains. Cars are parked rather than being a threat.

Motel images from website

The Building Remembers

An exhibition and catalog featuring photographs of the Northfield Middle School before it was transformed into the Weitz Center for Creativity at Carleton. Images all show a very strong geometric design, diagonals, verticals and horizontals. It is not always clear why this is so apart from (over?) dramatic impact.

 

Nicholas Nixon

Nicholas Nixon, born in 1947, is known for the ease and intimacy of his black and white large format photography.  As well as being one of the photographers exhibiting in New Topographics, Nicholas Nixon’s subjects include schoolchildren and schools in and around Boston, people living along the Charles River near Boston and Cambridge as well as cities in the South, his family and himself, people in nursing homes, the blind, sick and dying people, and the intimacy of couples. Nixon is also well known for his work People With AIDS, begun in 1987.

Recording his subjects close and with meticulous detail facilitates the connection between the viewer and the subject. Influenced by the photographs of Edward Weston and Walker Evans, Nixon began working with large-format cameras. Whereas most professional photographers had abandoned these cameras in favor of shooting on 35mm film with more portable cameras, Nixon preferred the format because it allowed prints to be made directly from the 8×10 inch negatives, retaining the clarity and integrity of the image. Nixon has said “When photography went to the small camera and quick takes, it showed thinner and thinner slices of time, [unlike] early photography where time seemed non-changing. I like greater chunks, myself. Between 30 seconds and a thousandth of a second the difference is very large.”

Interview with Nixon from Ahorn Magazine

Urbonautica article

Nixon’s work is included in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, among many others.

New Topographics and urban landscape

Nixon’s early city views taken of Boston and New York in the mid-seventies were exhibited at the New Topographics exhibition in 1975. See Google Images from the Exhibition

His images are mostly high view images showing complexity of roadways and textured skyscrapers. Although they have a formal beauty, I do not find them as effective in terms of message or emotion as other images in the exhibition.

His first solo exhibition was at the Museum of Modern Art curated by John Szarkowski.

In the late nineties, Nixon returned to this subject matter to document Boston’s changing urban landscape during the Big Dig highway development project.

The Brown Sisters

In 1975, Nixon began his project, The Brown Sisters consisting of a single portrait of his wife, Bebe, and her three sisters each year, consistently posed in the same left to right order. As of 2014, there are forty portraits altogether.

Forty Portraits in Forty Years—Nicholas Nixon portrait series (The Brown Sisters)

In 2010, theMuseum of Fine Arts, Boston organized the exhibition “Nicholas Nixon: Family Album” which included “The Brown Sisters” series among other portraits of his wife Bebe, himself and his children Sam and Clementine.

 Close Far

2013 Nixon’s book Close Far was released by Steidl. The body of work explores the relationship of the self in physical and psychological proximity to the urban landscape. Nixon presents a dichotomous group of photos made with a large-format view camera, in this case one with an 11×14 inch negative. The first half of the book contains self-portraits, comprising, in Nixons words, sketches of an old man. Filled with anxiety, longing and contentedness, these images chronicle the shapes, slopes and pores of Nixons face. The second half of the book shows views of buildings in the densest part of Boston. Made from high within the buildings and with the same camera, these images without horizons do not gaze down upon but rather through the city. With the lens in the same orientation as his self-portrait photos, Nixons results are remarkable for their richness of detail and complexity of form.

Interview with Nixon from 2013

 Books

  • Photographs From One Year (1983)
  • Pictures of People (1988)
  • People With AIDS (with Bebe Nixon)(1991)
  • School (1998)
  • The Brown Sisters (2002)
  • Nicholas Nixon Photographs (2003)
  • Home (2005)
  • Live Love Look Last (2009)
  • Close Far (2013)
  • Forty Portraits in Forty Years (2014)

Joe Deal

Joseph Maurice “Joe” Deal (August 12, 1947 – June 18, 2010) was an American photographer who specialized in depicting how the landscape was transformed by people.

Google images

Square format landscapes on the Great Plains.

Biography

Wikipedia

Deal was born in Topeka, Kansas on August 12, 1947, and was raised in Albany, Missouri and St. Paul, Minnesota. He attended the Kansas City Art Institute, where he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. After his graduation in 1970, he was designated as a conscientious objector by the local draft board and was assigned to work as a guard and janitor at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, and its museum of photography. He later earned a master’s degree in photography and a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of New Mexico.

While working on his thesis for his MFA degree in the 1970s Deal started teaching at the University of California, Riverside, where he helped establish the UCR/California Museum of Photography. In 1989, he became dean of theSchool of Art at Washington University in St. Louis. He was named to serve as provost of the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island 1999, and lived there for the remainder of his life.

In the mid-1970s, Deal was one of nine photographers chosen to participate in the “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape” exhibition curated by William Jenkins at the Eastman House’s International Museum of Photography. Deal contributed 18 black and white photographs to the exhibit in a 32 cm × 32 cm format. Many of the photographs Deal submitted featured homes newly constructed against the desolate landscape of the American Southwest.

He continued photographing man’s effect on the landscape in “The Fault Zone”, which featured images combining human and geologic effects on the area surrounding the San Andreas Fault. “Subdividing the Inland Basin” featured suburban areas east of Los Angeles and “Beach Cities” focused on Pacific Ocean communities in Southern California.

 “West and West: Reimagining the Great Plains” featured photographs of the grid pattern of much of the Midwestern United States and was on exhibit at the University of Arizona’s Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona after opening at the Rhode Island School of Design and being presented at New York City’s Robert Mann Gallery.[3]

A ten-year resident of Providence, Rhode Island, Deal died at a hospice there due to bladder cancer at age 62 on June 18, 2010.He is survived by his wife, Betsy Sara Ruppa, and a daughter, Meredith Deal.

Lewis Baltz

Lewis Baltz (September 12, 1945 – November 22, 2014) was a visual artist and photographer who became an important figure in the New Topographics movement of the late 1970s. His work is focused on searching for beauty in desolation and destruction. Baltz’s images describe the architecture of the human landscape: offices, factories and parking lots. His pictures are the reflection of control, power, and influenced by and over human beings.

Approach to Photography

For me a work of art is something to think about rather than something to look at.

Photography starts with a world that is overfull. The photograph tries to sort it out. What is the camera looking at and why?

The new topographics

In 1974 he captured the anonymity and the relationships between inhabitation, settlement and anonymity in The New Industrial Parks near Irvine, California (1974).

Discussing his photographs of Park City 1978-79 Baltz says ‘I want my work to be neutral and free from aesthetic and ideological posturing..’ But his photographs are far from being emotionally barren….convey sadness, disappointment, and anger at how we have used the landscape..It becomes hard to distinguish construction from destruction'(Jurovics in Foster-Ricxe and Rohrbach pp6-7)

 

 

‘No one wanted to confront the new homogenised environment that was being built – people pretended not to see it. I was looking for the things that were most unremarkable, and wanted to present them in as unremarkable way as possible to ‘appear objective’ and not show point of view.’ Though obviously not objective.

Interested in the effect of the place. What kind of people or new world would come out of it.

Interest in marginalised, things that reminded us of mortality. Wastelands.

His books and exhibitions, his “topographic work”, such as The New Industrial Parks, Nevada, San Quentin Point, Candlestick Point (84 photographs documenting a public space near Candlestick Park, ruined by natural detritus and human intervention), expose the crisis of technology and define both objectivity and the role of the artist in photographs.

Baltz moved to Europe in the late 1980s and started to use large colored prints. 1989 started to think of much more direct ways of being social. He published several books of his work including Geschichten von Verlangen und Macht, with Slavica Perkovic (Scalo, 1986). Other photographic series, including Sites of Technology (1989–92), depict the clinical, pristine interiors of hi-tech industries and government research centres, principally in France and Japan.

Baltz died on November 22, 2014 at the age of 69 following a long illness.

Henry Wessel

Importance of acting on instinct. The first photographs are often the most interesting because they are new. The next ones become more laboured, and more like everyone else’s.

 

Taking images from the vantage point of the car. Then stop and explore it more. ‘Think of the process as being receptive’ Photograph anything that takes your eye.

Importance of light. In California light is very sharp.

Uses 35mm camera.

The world is filled with wonderful things.

Present world is chaos. Still photography tries to process it.

Produce a negative with as much information as possible. Then process to mirror world.

Revisits contact sheets again later to see what is interesting.

Everything is interconnected. In balance.

Stephen Shore

Form and Pressure:

Analyses alternative formal structures. In particular images based on one-point perspective, with the vanishing point in the centre of the image. When 3-dimensional space is collapsed into a flat picture, objects in the foreground are now seen, on the surface of the photograph, in a new and precise relationship to the objects in the background.juggling ever increasing visual complexity.

But at the same time, I recognized that I was imposing an order on the scene in front of me. Photographers have to impose order, bring
structure to what they photograph. It is inevitable. A photograph without structure is like a sentence without grammar – it is inconceivable. This order is the product of a series of decisions: where to position the camera, exactly where to place the frame, and when to release the shutter. These decisions simultaneously define the content and determine the structure.

As I approached the intersection for a second time, I asked myself if I could organize the information I wanted to include without relying on a overriding structural principle, the way I did the day before. I asked myself if I could structure the picture in a way that communicated my experience standing there, taking in the scene in front of me. Sometimes I have the sense that form contains an almost philosophical communication – that as form becomes more invisible, transparent, it begins to express an artist’s understanding of the structure of experience.

From Galilee to the Negev

Biography

Wikipedia

Stephen Shore was interested in photography from an early age. Self-taught, he received a photographic darkroom kit at age six from a forward-thinking uncle. He began to use a 35 mm camera three years later and made his first color photographs. At ten he received a copy of Walker Evans’s book, American Photographs, which influenced him greatly. His career began at fourteen, when he presented his photographs to Edward Steichen, then curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Recognizing Shore’s talent, Steichen bought three. At seventeen, Shore met Andy Warhol and began to frequent Warhol’s studio, the Factory, photographing Warhol and the creative people that surrounded him. In 1971, at the age of 24, Shore became the second living photographer to have a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Shore then embarked on a series of cross-country trips, making “on the road” photographs of American and Canadian landscapes. In 1972, he made the journey from Manhattan to Amarillo, Texas, that provoked his interest in color photography. Viewing the streets and towns he passed through, he conceived the idea to photograph them in color, first using 35 mm hand-held camera and then a 4×5″ view camera before finally settling on the 8×10 format. In 1974 a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) endowment funded further work, followed in 1975 by a Guggenheim grant and in 1976 a color show at MoMA, NY. His 1982 book, Uncommon Places, was a bible for the new color photographers because, alongside William Eggleston, his work proved that a color photograph, like a painting or even a black and white photograph, could be considered a work of art

Robert Adams

Google Images

Robert Adams was born in New Jersey in 1937, and moved to Colorado as a teenager. Adams was a professor of English literature for several years before turning his full attention to photography in the mid 1970s.

His work first came to prominence in the mid-1970s through the book The New West (1974) and the exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape (1975). His work is largely concerned with moments of regional transition: the suburbanization of Denver, a changing Los Angeles of the 1970s and 1980s, and the clear-cutting in Oregon in the 1990s.

‘ More people currently know the appearance of Yosemite Valley and the Grand Canyon from looking at photographic books than from looking at the places themselves; conservation publishing has defined for most of us the outstanding features of the wilderness aesthetic. Unfortunately…the same spectacular pictures have also been widely accepted as a definition of nature, and the implication has been circulated that what is wild is not natural.’

‘Attention only to perfection…invites…for urban viewers – which means most of us – a crippling disgust; our world is in most places far from clean…This leaves photography with a new but not less important job: to reconcile us to half wilderness'(quoted Dunaway p22)

His  books include:

  • The New West
  • From the Missouri West
  • Summer Nights
  • Los Angeles Spring
  • To Make It Home
  • Listening to the River
  • West From the Columbia
  • What We Bought
  • Notes for Friends
  • California
  • Summer Nights
  • Walking, Gone?
  • What Can We Believe Where? 
  • The Place We Live.

Adams has also written a number of critical essays on the art of photography, including Beauty in Photography, Why People Photograph and most recently, Along Some Rivers.

Frank Gohlke

Google images

Frank Gohlke’s website

http://terrain.org/2011/interviews/interview-with-frank-gohlke/

Measure of Emptiness: Grain Elevators in the American Landscape

‘ I was frustrated by the discrepancy between the facts surrounding the grain elevators and the intensity of my emotional responses to the objects themselves…To me, the photographs I was making argued that there are deeper impulses lurking somewhere in the functional surfaces and details of the grain elevators, and that subjective choice as well as objective necessity has a role in determining their form.’

‘ The dignity of grain elevators, the precision, intelligence and grace of their formal language, their majestic presence within the landscape all seem to confirm the faith that, given the right circumstances, we will make visible the best that is within us.’