Monday, April 13, 2009

Old Topographics

While reading this week's selection of articles about and written by the New Topographers, I was particularly struck by how deeply they questioned the practice of image-making and the production of meaning. 

Ben Lifson, in, what I assume to be an introduction to one of Frank Gohlke's monographs (but can't be certain because the reading was unlabeled), writes "he [Gohlke] tries to rid himself of position and to become, in relation to the land, an accumulation of receptivities. "  This is a pretty interesting statement, and is worth dissecting.  The thought of ridding oneself of position suggests striving to make an unbiased picture, which had, I think, a much different meaning in the 1970s than it does now.  Anyone who has been in grad school at Columbia knows that not having a position isn't looked upon too kindly around here.  All of us are asked at one point or another (or in every crit) what our point of view is, what position do we take.  In 1970 though, ridding oneself of position meant not making an Ansel Adams picture.  It meant leaving in the power lines and the trash and the trailer parks.  It meant not cropping out the tourists and their cars.  It meant photographing things as they were.  To become "an accumulation of receptivities" implies that Gohlke's role is to listen to, absorb, and translate the world around him, rather than imposing meaning.  

Lifson ponders on the construction of meaning in landscape photography, saying "Do these pictures originate in nature?  Or are they the invention of a collaboration between the eye and art, and imposed by perception upon nature, which in itself has neither pictorial order nor pictorial style?"  Do Gohlke's pictures, in which he strives to eliminate his own position, rely on the subject of the image for meaning, or it the content formed through the photographer's interpretation of what it there?  

There is something slightly contradictory in all of this.  Social concerns were a primary motivation for Gohlke and his fellow New Topographers.  Lifson goes so far as to call Gohlke's work "didactic" (although he doesn't mean this as a criticism), but also stresses that he tries to rid himself of position.  Lifson suggests that the meaning of the work depends on collaboration between what's there and what the photographer makes of it.  Clearly the photographer always make choices in what to photograph, and Gohlke's picture series are often so tightly focused that we can be certain that those choices are meaningful in themselves.  So there is some tension between telling and showing - does Gohlke create the meaning, or is it already there to be had? 

Frank Gohlke, Aerial view: downed forest near Elk Rock.  Approximately ten 
miles northwest of Mount St. Helens, Washington, 1981

Frank Gohlke, Aerial view: clear-cuts and logging roads.  Vicinity of 
Mount St. Helens, Washington (outside impact area), 1982

The above images are part of Gohlke's series on Mount St. Helens after it blew up.  He was particularly interested in the visual connection between the forests downed by the volcano and those downed by clear cut logging.  This particular pair of images, which sit adjacent to each other in a slideshow on his website, reveal a complicated method of the production of meaning.  Without his captions, we probably wouldn't be able to tell the difference between a forest downed by a volcano (and then harvested), and a forest downed by loggers.  When we realize that human activity has caused a level of destruction resembling that caused by a volcano, the visual similarity becomes enormously disturbing.  Here Gohlke both tells us and shows us what the place means.  The content is carried by both what is there and what we learn from its presentation.  

The contemporary photographer Justin James Reed works in the tradition of the New Topographers.  His work raises the question of whether the style of the New Topographers is suited to current issues or whether it requires modification.  His subject matter, power lines, communication towers, freshly built subdivisions, McMansions, and blank industrial park facades, is highly reminiscent of this forebears' work.  Oftentimes, his style is as well, embracing flat light and neutral compositions. 
Justin James Reed, Southampton, New Jersy, from the series Paradise, 2007

Other times, though, his work becomes much more subjective, clearly asserting the photographer's position regarding the subject matter.

Justin James Reed, Thornbury, Pennsylvania, from the series Paradise, 2007

Justin James Reed, Monroe, New Jersey, from the series New Cities, 2006

Robert Adams, Untitled, Denver, 1970-1974

Compare Reed's photographs of suburban development to this image by Robert Adams, made more than 30 years prior.  In allowing the unnaturally rolling lawnscape and the freshly excavated red clay dominate his pictures, Reed places far more emphasis on the his own position.  While Adams' perspective is certainly intentional, revealing the large scale and uniformity of the development, we are much less aware of this image as a photograph than we are in Reed's.  Reed is less reliant on the subject matter to carry the meaning and takes a more active role.  He is less a facilitator and translator than he is a writer.  

It seems as if Reed's approach is common amongst contemporary landscape photographers.  The New Topographers' attempt to rid their work of position isn't so useful in this world.  Now, it seems, making one's position clear, or at least differentiating it from an unmediated experience of the world, is more important.  

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