Depth of Field, volume 7, no. 1 (December 2015)Gisela Parak: From ‘Topographic’ to ‘Environmental’ – A Look into the Past and the Presence of the New Topographics Movement

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First Self-commissioned Artistic Representations

In an early stage of his career the American photographer Richard Misrach began to deal with aspects of environmental protection problems in his work. His series Desert Cantos, published in 1987, takes up the traditions of American vernacular landscape photography as a landscape coined by the infrastructure of modern life in the 1930s.[11] Misrach shows minor disorders in the endless expanse of landscape panoramas, which contradict the impression of a natural idyll, such as remnants of military explosive tests. It became typical for the photographer to investigate his case studies over a long period of time and to examine the history of places and areas whose fate he than makes possible for the observer to experience. Misrach’s volume Bravo 20, The Bombing of the American West, published in 1990, relates the history of the secret bomb tests of the U.S. American marines in the Nevada Desert, which caused a moon crater landscape. The photobook Petrochemical America (2014) in contrast, presents the long-term damage of the oil-processing industry in the so-called Cancer Alley along the Mississippi River. In his series Desert Cantos, Misrach for the first time connected artistic photography and a photographic portrayal of the long-term effects of mercury poisoning in a way that was both, strongly political but also aesthetic.

The difference between artistic and political motivation, on the other hand, was made clear by two works from the early 1980s by Lewis Baltz and John Gossage, which were published almost ten years after the New Topographics exhibition. While Baltz was presented by William Jenkins as part of the New Topographics in 1975, his friend Gossage was not represented in the show. In this context, Gerry Badger has characterized the artistic exchange between Lewis Baltz, John Gossage, William Eggleston, and Michael Schmidt at the Werkstatt für Photographie (Workshop for Photography ) in Kreuzberg in the early 1980s as crucially important for the photographers’ careers.[12] In 1985 Gossage published his photobook The Pond, in 1986 Baltz his San Quentin Point. Before those book publications, both series had been exclusively presented in the photographic journal Camera Austria.[13] In Camera Austria volume 11/12 of 1983, Baltz explains his understanding of artistic documentary photography and verifies that no ecological intention preceded his series Park City or San Quentin Point. Nevertheless, the series’ critical message is evident. In Baltz’s words, Park City is a photobook about the spectacle of the creative and destructive forces of capitalism, whereas San Quentin Point describes a dead, forlorn and futureless place: ‘San Quentin Point is world in decline, in decay: form degenerates into a chaotic parody of itself and all meaning, all significance is lost. It is a place where human work, nature and culture melt together in an entropic way.’[14] For Baltz, the description of the place formulates its own criticism which makes a further political agitation superfluous:

‘I hope that I have let the place speak for itself in my pictures, for what can be criticized about Park City seems obvious enough to me and that no further interference or embellishment on the part of the photographer is necessary. I hope you have only seen what is there and not the coarse attempt to propagate my own opinion. If this is not the case, then I see this as a problem – as an error in my work.’[15]

Thematically, San Quentin Point carries out a radical shift of photographic landscape representations. (fig. 3) The finely differentiated black-and-white images show sections of bleak peripheral zones and undergrowth, in which only remnants of desolate nature next to garbage can be seen. The branches seem to be characterized by their irreversible destruction. The sectional character of the scenarios dissolves the landscape panorama; fragmented single areas stand by themselves and no longer belong to a larger unified whole or nature space. Also Gossage’s The Pond can be compared to a forensic search for traces of human-made devastation of nature. (fig. 4) On the edge of a town settlement Gossage tracks down points in which nature has up to now been left to its own devices, but is in danger in the next moment of being destroyed by areas of building: ‘to be swallowed up by suburbia.’[16] In his photographic forays through the town periphery Gossage refers to the American transcendentalist Henry Thoreau and his seminal writing Walden of 1854. A photographically localized, yet fictitious place remains nebulous despite the naturalistic portrayal. While nature, celebrated by Thoreau as being untouched – actually Walden’s Pond was situated very near to a well-developed railway line – is transfigured into a spiritual place of retreat, well removed from all civilized evil, Gossage’s photographs show places in which scarcely anything idyllic and unadulterated is conserved. In spite of all this, they radiate a tranquility, which might be described as being the final deep breath before the ultimate loss of the place.

Fig. 3 Lewis Baltz, San Quentin Point, no. 40, 1983. © mc.galerie@free.fr

Fig. 4 John Gossage, The Pond, 1985/86.© permissions@fraenkelgallery.com

The conceptual understanding of photographic representation – with the works of Baltz and Gossage leading the way here – can also be related to Robert Smithson’s famous essay A Tour to the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey (1967).[17] Smithson showed the devastations of industrial and settlement history as being modern monuments. Combining text and photographs, Smithson turns his writing into a conceptual artwork. Just like this piece of intellectual reflection of the function and possibilities of photographic depiction, San Quentin Point and The Pond do not portray any photographic documentation of the place, but carry out a reflection on the meaning of visual representation of the place at the interface of Land Art, conceptual art and artistic photography. As outlined, its primary direction of thrust was not a politically adopted ecological goal. However, Baltz and Gossage were well aware of the environmental message spread by the images. Moreover, the notion of ‘entropy’ – to be understood as the distraction of energy and degradation of a site – was given prominent importance. Not only did Baltz use it in his 1983 article as cited above, but Smithson also defined the wasteland as a place where energy has been removed.[18] It can therefore be ascertained that the label ‘New Topographics’ neglected the immanent references to the environment made by the photographers.