|This article relies on references to primary sources. (April 2011)|
"New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape" was an exhibition that epitomized a key moment in American landscape photography. The show was curated by William Jenkins at the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House (Rochester, New York) in January 1975.
The exhibition had a ripple effect on the whole medium and genre, not only in the USA, but in Europe too where generations of landscape photographers emulated and are still emulating the spirit and aesthetics of the exhibition. Since 1975 "New Topographics" photographers such as Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Frank Gohlke, and Stephen Shore have influenced photographic practices regarding landscape around the world. Moreover, and as a proof of the impact of this exhibition beyond the American scene, three out of the ten photographers in the show were later commissioned by the French government for the Mission de la DATAR, namely Lewis Baltz, Frank Gohlke, and Stephen Shore.
For "New Topographics" William Jenkins selected eight then-young American photographers: Robert Adams (photographer), Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore, and Henry Wessel, Jr. He also invited the German couple, Bernd and Hilla Becher, then teaching at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf (Germany). Since the late 1950s they had been photographing various obsolete structures, mainly post-industrial carcasses or carcasses-to-be, in Europe and America. They first exhibited them in series, as "typologies", often shown in grids, under the title of "Anonymous Sculptures." They were soon adopted by the Conceptual Art movement.
Each photographer in the New Topographics exhibition was represented by 10 prints. All but Stephen Shore worked in black and white. The prints were in a 20 cm × 25 cm (8″×10″) format except for Joe Deal (32 cm × 32 cm), Frank Gohlke (24 cm × 24 cm – close enough to 8”×10”), and the Bechers with typical European (for the time) 30 cm × 40 cm prints.
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. Jenkins mentioned Edward Ruscha's work, especially the numerous artist books (“26 Gasoline Stations” (1962), “Various Small Fires” (1964), “34 Parking Lots” (1967), etc.) that he self-published in the 1960s as one of the inspirations for the exhibition and the photographers it features (except for the Bechers).
"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 Lewis 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 R. Adams, Baltz, and Deal.
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. The exhibition is currently on view at the Nederlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam, Netherlands, and is scheduled to continue on to the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum in Spain.
- Jenkins, William. New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape. Catalogue. Rochester, NY: International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House, 1975.
- "Robert Adams: Landscapes of Harmony and Dissonance", exhibition notice, The Getty, 2006.
- First of six pages of a Lewis Baltz checklist, George Eastman House, 2002.
- "Stephen Shore, Photographer", billcharles.com.
- Archives of the George Eastman House, Rochester (NY): the museum owns the entire show except for the prints by the Bechers.
- Traveling Exhibitions at the Center for Creative Photography.