TOP review by Geoff Wittig-
The 1975 New Topographics exhibition at George Eastman House is widely considered a watershed event, rivaled in influence only by Edward Steichen's Family of Man exhibition. At the time, photography-as-art still meant black and white photography almost exclusively. Landscape photography in the romantic/modernist idiom (i.e. Ansel Adams, Wynn Bullock, et al.) was increasingly regarded as an irrelevant throwback.
Curated by William Jenkins, the exhibition displayed the work of a group of young photographers marked by a detached, clinical, almost wry æsthetic. Rather than romantic grand landscapes, visitors were presented with unsentimental images of tract houses in Colorado, or downtown Boston, or tacky motels in New Mexico. Also included were some of Bernd and Hilla Becher's photographs of industrial relics. Despite the almost pedestrian subject matter, the quality of the modestly sized prints was exceptionally good. Most were shot on large format film, though Lewis Baltz used Kodak Tech Pan film in 35mm size with results that were surprisingly similar.
It would be difficult to exaggerate the subsequent influence of this exhibition. It characterized a seismic shift in landscape photography away from the romantic/heroic mode toward the ironic and documentary. Most of the photographers exhibited went on to acclaimed careers: Robert Adams, Nicholas Nixon, Stephen Shore, Frank Gohlke and of course the Bechers have all been extremely influential in fine art photography. Many of them cited Walker Evans as a seminal influence on their own work.
The Center for Creative Photography and George Eastman House have teamed up with art publisher Steidl to create a superb new book on this seminal exhibition. It is published in concert with an encore exhibition of the New Topographics, touring now.
The design and physical format of the book admirably suits its intent. It is covered in simple grey cloth, with the title and photographers' names deeply embossed in white ink. This lettering precisely reproduces that of the original 1975 exhibition catalogue. The utterly pedestrian Times Roman typeface and simple page design likewise fit the goal of straightforward, unsentimental documentary presentation.
The first section of the book is a long essay by Britt Salvesen which places the original exhibition in historical context, and includes interviews with some of the photographers. Next is an essay by Eastman House curator Alison Nordstrom discussing the subsequent influence of the original exhibition in academia and print, right down to today's New Topographics group on Flickr (no, really!).
Following the essays are beautifully reproduced images from each photographer, in alphabetical order. The photographic reproductions are ideally sized: large enough to study, but with enough margin to handle the book. The Bechers' images are reproduced as "grids" of individual photographs, as intended. Stephen Shore's images, the only ones in color, perfectly convey his customary subdued palette.
Next is a complete reduced-scale photoreproduction of the original exhibition catalogue (sample above). In the same spirit as the Errata Editions reproductions of classic photobooks, the page layout and design are demonstrated.
Following this facsimile section are thumbnails of every photograph in the exhibition, noting the image's size and directing you to the page where it is reproduced. Finally, the book concludes with a very thorough bibliography, which is itself a testament to the immense influence of the original exhibition. It's a great resource for those interested in exploring the subject further.
This beautiful book is the catalogue for the encore of the New Topographics exhibition, which opened at George Eastman House in June of 2009. Currently at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, the show will travel to San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art in July before heading to Europe in November. By all means, see the exhibition if you have the chance. Having repeatedly (obsessively!) visited the show in Rochester, I can honestly say it's well worth your while. Compared to today's gigantic print sizes, the modest but superbly printed images are striking in their own quiet way.
New Topographics at Amazon U.S.
New Topographics at Amazon U.K.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.