‘New Topographics’

In 1975 an important exhibition called ‘New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape’ appeared. In retrospective art criticism, this exhibition is ascribed as initiating a turning point in the history of photography, particularly as it was in some ways the antithesis of traditional portrayals of landscape. Photographers Robert Adams, Stephen Shore, Lewis Baltz and Frank Gohlke were commissioned to reimagine ‘the genres of topographical and architectural photography with the implications of contemporary urban generation and the ecological consequences of industry’. (Cotton, P.83). In some ways the most significant aspect of the exhibition was that these social and political agents were for the first time considered on the art gallery wall. Within this context ‘what at the time were seen as individual styles” were abandoned in favour of a detached objective style, somewhat similar in style to John Davies (see previous post) but greater in their rejection of the idealised interpretation of landscape.

At the time the exhibition was not well received by an audience that was used to the traditional landscape photography of the time. The exhibition presented 168 black and white prints of suburbia, industrial warehouses, city centres, wastelands and even seemingly banal car parks. I have selected a couple of photographs (see below) by Frank Gohlke and Lewis Baltz that are good examples of the artists presenting the aesthetic beauty of the banal, whilst revealing interesting narratives below the strict formalism in each photo. While the ‘New Topographics’ was disparaged at the time, it was crucial in opening up new opportunities for later artists. A good example of this Catherine Opie who published series called ‘Masterplan’ and ‘Mini-malls’, the inspiration for which she attributes back to the original 1975 exhibition while crafting her own interpretation of the suburbanised landscape. An example of her work is posted below as is an interesting video I came across online in which she talks about the representation of the ‘Man-Altered Landscape’ in photography.

 

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Frank Gohlke; Grain Elevator and Lightning Flash, Lamesa, Texas; 1975; Gelatin silver print, 1996; Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas

 

LewisBaltzLewis Baltz; The New Industrial Parks near Irvine, Element No. 5; California, 1977

 

catherineopieminimallsCatherine Opie; Untitled #2 from ‘Mini Mall’ series; Iris Print, 1997

 

The link to the interview with Catherine Opie can be found here.

 

The ‘New Topographics’ was certainly a revolutionary exhibit at the time, and it’s influence on practising artist up to the present day is clear to see. The idea of finding beauty in the banal and challenging the audience to look closely for historical narrative is something that will inform research for the final assignment. Depth and experimenting with formalised composition is something that I will be challenging myself to practice in an observational approach.

 

References: 

Charlotte Cotton; The Photograph as Contemporary Art; Thames and Hudson, United Kingdom 2004; New edition 

Catherine Opie; Catherine Opie on New Topographics; Los Angeles County Museum of Art 2009; Youtube video

 

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‘New Topographics’

Exercise: A single figure small

As the brief for this exercise specified, planning to achieve this kind of shot was difficult and I had to wait for the opportunity to appear. Since starting Part Four of the course, I have kept a camera on me more regularly and have taken to working through the exercises in the module simultaneously rather than chronologically. That being said, I did have the opportunity to grab a few shops that utilised the distant figure in the frame. I was particularly pleased with the first example (see below). The figure is distant enough to be anonymous, although the context is clear and there is a clear narrative to the image. The composition is also quite interesting in that the figure is placed off centre and the clear contrast between the white railings in the foreground and the array of greys in the background.

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I concluded the images at the second location (also on a footbridge) are less successful. I aimed for a similar style and angle (black and white + looking through foreground railings) but opted for a slightly different composition.

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Tilting the frame works to some extent by adding a sense of movement to the man walking, introducing some visual tension.

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Whilst compositionally and stylistically the images are interesting, I don’t think they are quite as effective as the first image in fulfilling the brief. Firstly I was perhaps too close to the figure and so the sense of place is lost for the viewer. There is also no clear visual narrative – the viewer is left guessing the nature of the place and how the figure is interacting with it. As an exercise it was interesting to experiment with composition and proximity to the figure, and the conclusions reached from the resulting images are lessons I will take into the upcoming exercises and assignment.

Exercise: A single figure small

Exercise: Exploring function

For the first exercise of Part 3 of the course, I will be using my images from Danwon High School. I approached this shoot with this module in mind, and this fits into the first exercise brief nicely.

I had previously photographed the interview of two fathers whose children had perished in the Sewol ferry disaster in April 2014, and this project followed on from the interview. Myself and one more photographer were permitted access to the school to shoot the classrooms of the students who were lost last year. Most of the 2nd Grade perished in the disaster and many of the classrooms sat completely empty of students and teachers for the remainder of the year.

The focus of my images was to be the classroom space itself, the school the students spent so much of their time learning and growing into young adults. An empty school is slightly eerie but knowing why these classrooms stood empty was harrowing and shocking. I aimed to get across the design of the space and how it is intended to be used. I found the functionality of the classroom – empty chairs and desks, unused books, lockers with students names on – takes on a new, special significance when set in the context of the terrible events of last year, and my images convey something of this meaning to the viewer.

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See the project write up here:

william513082a.prosite.com/395493/5935459/gallery/danwon-…

And in Photographers in Korea magazine:

www.madeinkorea.photography/photo-essays/sewol-a-tribute/

Exercise: Exploring function

Assignment 2: A public event

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There has been quite a lengthy gap between shooting the photos for this assignment and writing my reflection – a gap that I hadn’t planned but I’ve been happy with the time for reflection. I shot the “activity” itself two months ago in Korea, and I have been thinking over my choice of subject matter carefully.

Myself and another photographer had been asked to shoot an interview of families of the victims of the April 2014 Sewol ferry disaster in Korea, a tragedy that saw the loss of 300 people including over 200 school children. I shot the interview of two of the fathers of children lost in the disaster, who have been protesting since last year against the government’s handling of the accident and what they see as cover ups by the those at the top. The interview took place in Gwanghwamun square in the centre of Seoul, in close proximity to many government offices and not far from the President’s house.

I went into the shoot with some nerves as I realised the sensitive nature of the event and the fact that I may not have much time to get my shots. I was also aware that I may not have much control therefore I went in aiming to capture shots documenting the interview rather than attempting to intervene and pose the subjects. This was also in line with the requirements for Assignment two, so I looked for the “moments” that told the story and explained the event.

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The interview started off quite tense for all parties, the interviewer was not a Korean speaker and the fathers could not speak English so there was a translator at the ready. I noticed immediately how tired the fathers looked and they both talked quietly and softly in response to the first set of questions. 

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The father above was much more animated and you could clearly see that he spoke for the pair as he was willing to give longer answers and warmed up to the interview much faster than the other.

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The father above was more pensive and reserved and you could see the sense of hopelessness and desperation etched into his face over the state of the protest. It is worth noting that these two men (along with many other families of the victims of the sinking) have been living in the square for the entire time since the sinking. At the time of the interview this was 10 months. They sleep in tents in Gwanghwamun square, wash in subway station toilets, and refuse to give up their vigil until they have received a satisfactory explanation of what happened to their children.

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As the interview wore on, I noticed the other father started to warm up to the questions and gave an extremely vivid and heartfelt account of the day he went to pick up his son’s body and went into the public mortuary to identify him for the police. As he gave this account the translator (see photo above) looked incredibly moved and struggled with the rest of the translation for the questions.

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As the interview wrapped up we thanked the fathers who thanked us in turn and asked for our future support for the Sewol parents’ cause. We walked outside with the fathers who retreated to their tent for some lunch and we melted back into the busy Seoul crowds. The shot above shows a part of Gwanghwamun square, the ribbons tied to the benches are in support of the Sewol parents protest.

Overall it was a difficult event to shoot and I was happy with the final set of images. I shot both digital and film shots, but once again found the frames from the roll I shot on the day better captured the intensely personal moments of the interview. If I was to shoot it again I would approach with perhaps a different aim in mind, focusing not just on straight portraits of the subjects but perhaps aim to capture different gestures, a range of expressions, or focusing on different body parts such as hands or the back of the head. Not being able to control the shoot was a strange scenario for myself as I have had little experience of documenting events and journalistic scenarios such as magazine interviews. Some control over the shoot would have been welcome and I would have liked to set up portraits of the fathers rather than shooting as they talked, but for the shots I did get I was pleased with the consistency, and the fact it showed a few personal moments from a difficult interview.

Assignment 2: A public event