Twice in the last couple of weeks I’ve been asked about my ‘photographic style.’ The first time I basically said “Dunno, never thought about it.” I mean, who thinks about stuff like that? The second time I said “New Topo, laid on its side, and turned 45 degrees to the left.” I said it as a joke, but after I said it, I sorta kinda became the type of person who thinks about stuff like that. And hey, it turned out to be sorta kinda true.
Back in 1975 a guy named William Jenkins curated an exhibition of a new school of landscape photography: the New Topographics movement. Landscape photography to that point in time had generally followed the path of landscape painting, which for the most part consisted of romantic depictions of ‘undisturbed’ nature. We either had the Ansel Adams approach (epic vistas photographed on a grand scale in black and white) or the Eliot Porter approach (intimate color images of a few trees or a handful of leaves scattered on a pond). Nothing wrong with either approach, but that was basically it.
Then along came Jenkins and his New Topo crew. His exhibition consisted of 168 black-and-white prints of warehouses, industrial sites, suburban tract housing, filling stations. The idea behind the exhibition was to present the modern landscape as it actually existed rather than in an idealized way. Most art photographers used the camera as a device for self-expression. The New Topographics photographers reduced the camera to its most basic function.
The camera, after all, is a tool that records everything in front of the lens. Every goddamned thing, not just the pretty stuff or the majestic stuff. And it records it all with the same precision. It records with a detached, unemotional, deadpan eye. That’s all a camera does. With that idea in mind, New Topo photographers deliberately attempted to remove any notion of ‘artistry’ from the act of photography. Their intent was to depict the objects in front of the lens in a way that merely mapped their surface. In other words, to reduce the subject of the photograph to an essentially topographic state.
The exhibition garnered a lot of attention. Not all of it was positive. Hell, relatively little of it was positive. Most folks thought the photographs were bland, uninteresting, boring, even ugly. And hey, those folks were right. I tend to agree. In my opinion, a lot of those photos really were butt-ugly. But they were interesting.
People who thought about photography as an art — not just viewed it, but consciously and deliberately thought about what photography was and could be — those folks found the exhibition fascinating. Why? In part because they realized the emotionally detached camera opened up a visual world in which people could see the stuff that had previously been filtered out. The ugly stuff. The old tires, the broken sidewalks, the trash cans, the old telephone wires, the litter. All the crap photographers normally worked hard to exclude from their photographs.
But there was a problem. Humankind has spent something like twelve thousand years unconsciously building the foundation of aesthetics. It’s really difficult to just toss all that aside. It’s hard NOT to look for beauty, hard NOT to try to include that beauty in a photograph. That’s a lot of human nature to overcome.
So a sort of Neo-New Topographics style emerged fairly quickly (and yeah, I just made that name up). It’s a style in which photographers still photographed the same anonymous human-shaped landscapes, and continued to objectively map the surfaces of whatever is in front of the lens — but with the recognition that even industrial sites and warehouses can be beautiful. And after that, a Nouveau-Neo-New Topo approach, in which photographers actively sought out what beauty can be found through surface mapping.
That idea has become a big chunk of my photographic patch. Over the last few years I’ve been working in a sort of Oblique Nouveau-Neo-New Topo style. Surface mapping at a slant. New Topo, laid on its side, and turned 45 degrees. Because I prefer my surface to have depth. I like a surface that extends itself. A surface that sort of falls away.
I can’t really say that’s my ‘style’ since I shoot all sorts of crap. But when I’m deliberately looking and seeing photographically, that’s pretty much my default approach. Find an interesting surface — then either photograph it straight or find an angle that allows the eye to shift off into the distance. Oblique Nouveau-Neo-New Topo. Takes longer to say than to shoot.
But hey, at least now I have a response the next time somebody asks me about my photographic style. ONNNT.