The art of photography changed forever in 1975, the year that William Jenkins curated “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape” at the International Museum of Photography in New York. The exhibit brought together eight artists who challenged the meaning of landscape photography priorly defined by the architects of photography as an art form—lensmen like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. The exhibit—which included photographers such as Stephen Shore, Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz and Frank Gohlke—also reconsidered a criteria of beauty that was more or less regulated before “New Topographics.” Afterward, a sea change surged in both America and the rest of the world, and the medium was altered forever.
The Cincinnati Art Museum’s latest photography exhibit, “Human-Altered Landscapes,” curated by Brian Sholis, restages works from the original 1975 exhibit along with more contemporary photographers. Though modest in size—there are a total of eleven photos—an engaging dialogue is opened between the older and newer landscapes.
According to Jenkins in his introduction to “New Topographics,” the photographs are rooted in a “stylistic anonymity.” The photos featured are in black and white (with the exception of Stephen Shore’s saturated portraits of Technicolor America), with neutral tones, factual titles, an absence of negative space and in many cases no depth of field. For landscapes, the imagery is strikingly durian: a bloat of gasoline stations, mobile homes, drive-in theaters, water towers and sprawling horizons of suburbia are the makeup of the 20th century’s American West, forgoing panoramic expanses of the pastoral for a frank glimpse into the country’s broadening synthetic frontier.
Yet many of these photos percolate with subtle beauty. Richard Misrach’s “Flooded Marina (Gas Pumps), Salton Sea,” which depicts a Texaco station submerged in water, is reminiscent of a postcard tinged with a surreal and unsettling ambience. Stephen Shore’s chromogenic catalogue of ordinary streets and buildings are lent a cinematic quality, resembling establishing shots for an American town in the middle of nowhere. A photo by Robert Adams, whose role was key in the New Topographics movement, takes an almost uninvolved reconnaissance of Colorado’s growing residential subdivisions with his defining palette of dull grays.
The contemporary photographs Sholis chose add to what current human-altered landscapes look like. The visual vocabulary of geographical artificiality explored in the mid 70’s is updated to include industrial wastelands, oil refineries and electronic landfills. These landscapes reveal how the seemingly-naive manufactured topographies of the mid-20th century have escalated to environmental calamity in the 21st century.
In a print by South African photographer Pieter Hugo, a man stands in the center of a ravaged landscape of e-waste in Ghana—a terrain where defective or used electronic wreckage is salvaged for resale or reuse. The subject’s gaze has a magnetic pull; the photograph skillfully uses the capacities of portraiture to immerse viewers into the landscape. Like the older photographs, many of the newer images have a sort of playfulness about them toward the genre. Edward Burtynsky’s massive 48 x 60’’ bird’s-eye photograph plays with perspective, at first impression resembling an extreme close-up of a natural element or a painting instead of a faraway aerial shot of an Australian mining operation. This is maybe the most alluring photo in the gallery—it is so breathtakingly ugly and hard to look at that it becomes simultaneously gorgeous. Another photograph that beautifies the industrial is Lucas Foglia’s “Produced Water, Hamilton Dome Oil Field, Owl Creek, Wyoming 2013.” This image frames natural, lush waterfalls juxtaposed with a pipe gushing “produced water” leftover from pumping in an oil field. The water is contaminated with chemicals and bacteria, but when poured into the local river is used as drinking water for animals.
Elena Dorfman applies a double exposure in “Empire Falling 8,” softly layering an image of dense forestry with a domestic community at the periphery of water. Paired on the wall with Dorfman’s photograph is one by John Divola from 1977, “Zuma #3,” which portrays an abandoned lifeguard post on Zuma Beach, Los Angeles. Divola purposefully defaced the structure and then captured it, making it, along with Dorfman’s digitally modified photo, a unique example of artist-altered landscape.
The photographs translate a human-perverted ugliness or plainness into a coalescence of American realism and romanticism. The accompanying text assures us throughout “Human-Altered Landscapes” that the photographers’ role in depicting the American landscape is not one grounded in morality, but in simple objectivity. The photographers frequently trade the sentimentality of early American West landscapes for a more truthful, ironically unaltered portrayal of the United States’ abused frontier. The older tradition’s nostalgia is replaced with a different type, one that is nostalgic for both past and future beauties.
There emerges a dichotomy in the genre-bending of these photographers; not only do these artists open the parameters for what qualifies as a landscape, they straddle, and obscure, the borders of art and photojournalism. This raises the intriguing and controversial question: is a photographer who captures an environmentally amoral landscape a photojournalist? By aestheticizing ecologically horrendous landscapes and omitting a conscious ethos in their work, are these photographers then themselves being unethical? Although these photographers and their work do not seem to have a solid intention, perhaps they are attempting to redefine how something can be considered “beautiful.” Often, the beauty does not lie in the technique in photographic composition, but in the idea that manmade structures and territories can be beautiful with or without the context of nature.
“Human-Altered Landscapes” is successful at compiling a continuation of an unmaking of the American landscape photography tradition that reaches back more than a century, which is itself inextricable from the American Dream. What the photographers in both “New Topographics” and this new exhibit do is offer a new visual identity for Americans to claim, one entrenched in the topography of (often and problematically beautiful) ecological perversion humans have wrought. As an update on the New York exhibit held four decades ago, it is interesting to note the similar questions raised by and for contemporary photographers surrounding the complicated political and aesthetic roles photographers have in our society.
“Human-Altered Landscapes” is exquisitely curated and thought-provoking. The eleven photographs displayed confirm the polarities that are tangled not only in art but in experiencing life, as we are able to witness the inflictions humankind has wrought on our landscapes, turned into fleeting poetry through a photographer’s lens.
“Human-Altered Landscapes” is exhibited through July 19 at the Cincinnati Art Museum.