After reading The Guardian article; New Topographics: photographs that find beauty in the banal, by Sean O’Hagan. I have few observations – firstly that this idea or concept of finding beauty in the everyday seems to be a feature in lots of post-modern art, it seems to manifest in lots of different mediums but is an undercurrent, as some kind of reaction to the world we live in.
Secondly I think that title is a misrepresentation of the subject – was the aim of the New Topographer exhibition to expose or uncover beauty in the banal or was it more to do with provoking thought around man’s alteration of the natural landscape? I think that the aim was more political/social than it was about beauty in the ‘boring’. But I can see how we might today say the outcome was beautiful.
The pictures were mostly exhibited in black & white, which I think might have added a dramatic or serious tone. Some may consider this another element which made the images seem simple or dull – I disagree. Only one photographer, Stephen Sore exhibited colour photographs.
I discovered in my research online that a re-staging of the exhibition occurred in 2009, held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I also found a link to a video of Video of Frank Gohlke talking about original New Topographics exhibition at the 2009 re-staging of ‘New Topographics’ at Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Robert Adams Photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Looking at Robert Adams Photographs section on his website, was a refreshing experience. At the start of each selection of photographs Adams has written an introduction, these introductions give a clear window into his agenda or thoughts around Man’s alteration or impact on the natural world. All of these introductions have a fluidity and rhythm to them that feels poetic. It’s a beautiful series of thoughts to accompany an equally starkly poetic body of photographs spanning from 1964-2009.
I’m particularly fond of the series of photographs from called, Summer Nights, 1985. Here’s his introduction to the photographs, which I think is simply beautiful.
Still photographs often differ from life more by their silence than by the immobility of their subjects. Landscape pictures tend to converge with life, however, on summer nights, when the sounds outside, after we call in children and close garage doors, are small—the whir of moths, the snap of a stick.
I’ve picked just three photographs from that collection to mention here. These are beautiful images which somehow evoke and distil that feeling of the quiet warmth of a summers night. I think his photography has a really sensitive and subtle feel, it requires more than just a quick glance to take in it’s message.
I’m not really sure how to be critical about the photographs above, I just think they have a quality and warmth to them that I’ve not seen in landscape photography. I think the use of Black & White rather than colour here potentially adds to the warmth and simplicity of the image, maybe there’s even an air of nostalgia in it. I’m surprised to say that these don’t feel cold or stark despite the simple framing of a limited subject matter, a house, a few tree’s, a road. I also really love the way movement of the tree’s is captured in the Fort Collins Colorado photograph, with the shadow of the tree’s leaves against the fence.
Another group of photographs in the collection I wanted to mention were taken from; Along Some Rivers.
I think this series is really interesting as it presents a new way to use photography as documentation. Adams appears to have returned to the same spots in Colorado over the years and in doing so has captured the alterations made to the landscape over the course of time. I’m not sure if this is intentional but for me there’s something in the separation of the photographs as three or two different images that aids that sense of fracture or discord, maybe mirroring man’s destructive relationship with the land. Here the photographs seem to act as evidence not just art, evidence of our negative impact on our world. But the photographs are still subtle, they don’t shout, they simply state the evidence or sight of the photographer.
Mitch Epstein’s: American Power project.
Mitch Epstein’s American Power Project feels like a much bolder photographic statement on the effect of man upon the landscape than most of Robert Adams photographs. I’m not sure if it’s wise to compare the two but the contrasts are interesting when both seem to have a similar agenda.
The American Power Project also reminds me a little of Robert Frank’s, The American’s, in it’s use of American symbolism or icons; the American flag, American Football Players even guns appear to me as icon’s of American life or culture and can be spotted in some of the images below.
In the image to the left, the American flag on the side of the oil refinery really appears as a metaphor for American Power; literally America bases part of it’s economic strength on oil sales, and on it’s ability to control that market. I wonder if the Refinery appears or looms larger in the photograph because its seen at a slight angle, and the tree’s either side seem to be being pushed away by this man made beast of a building.
In the image opposite the symbolism of Americanism seems to supplied by the American Football team in the foreground, but there’s an interesting juxtaposition between the bright red players and the large coal plant towers which take centre stage in the background. It’s a really cleverly staged shot.
I’m not entirely sure what’s supposed to be happening in the photograph to the left. An police officer appears to guarding or monitoring something and a gun is visibly placed on the desk next to him. But the caption states that the photograph was taken in an Art Museum. Is the photographer trying to highlight the extent to which American’s feel powerful or protected by gun use? Or is he questioning why this is necessary? It feels a bit more ambiguous to me!
In the final image opposite, the power station appears partially hidden by the natural elements around it. But it also appears to loom large over everyday life for the American family or home owner. It makes me consider what the skyline would’ve looked like before the coal plant was built. Was it an area of natural beauty, or farm land, or homes? What was altered to make space for the giant structure?
I made a note of some quotations I found in articles about Fay Godwin in relation to the project, Our Forbidden Land. I found it hard to find titled and properly accredited images of her work online, so I will do my best to only show those images which seem most credible…
The Guardian online article; Fay Godwin at the National Media Museum, by Margaret Drabble.
“Our Forbidden Land(1990) is an impassioned attack on the destruction of the countryside. The text is strongly argued, and the photographic documentary of what the Ministry of Defence, bad planning, guard dogs, greed and neglect are doing to Britain is eloquent. The volume is illustrated with poems from Ted Hughes and Adrian Mitchell, Frances Horovitz and Thomas Hardy, James Fenton and Seamus Heaney.” (Drabble, 2011)
Article by Warwick Arts, Introducing travelling exhibition; Fay Godwin: Glassworks and Secret Lives.
Note: The article was first written as an Obituary in,
The Independent, Thursday 2 June, 2005 by Val Williams
“producing a powerful and impassioned plea for the right to roam. If this new work appealed less to collectors, it could only enhance her reputation with a British public increasingly interested in the natural environment.” (Williams, 2005)
“Our Forbidden Land was published in 1990 and won the first Green Book of the Year award; the Royal Photographic Society organised an exhibition of prints from the project and Godwin became an Honorary Fellow of the Society.” (Williams, 2005)
I think Godwin’s work offers a unique vantage point of the British Landscape, and is certainly not the kind of photography I’ve ever thought of taking. Thinking about this further I wonder if because I was born in 1990 I was a few generations into the changes the British Landscape had undergone. I grew up paying to see areas of the countryside owned by the National Trust or English Heritage, and if I’m honest I never saw their ownership as a bad thing. It seemed to me to be better to have someone interested in conserving the environment own it than an developer or construction company.
The village I grew up in has areas of land (at it’s very edge), which is MOD property, we have walked around and on this property (when safe to do so!). So again I don’t feel massively angry or perturbed by their use of the land, there is still plenty of the British Landscape free to roam. I think I must’ve missed the point somewhere along the way!!
Having said all that, I think I will perhaps notice the restrictions in free roaming when I next take a wander with a camera round the countryside. I live in a city now, so a park is now considered a nice green space, I don’t feel annoyed about that being owned or maintained by the council, in fact I’m grateful someone takes care of it and cultivates it rather than letting it become a waste or dumping land. Enough said!!