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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Cultural Criticism in the Genre of Landscape Photography

Parallel to the American photographers, the photographers in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) in the 1970s discovered ecological themes for their art.[19] Yet the New Topographics exhibition was only known by hearsay to the students of the Folkwang School in Essen at the end of the 1970s.[20] Nevertheless, in the West German photo scene a comparative change in the perception and view of nature and landscape took place. In the USA the discussion about the vernacular landscape and the reshaping of landscape through everyday culture provided fertile ground for public discussions. In particular, the interested public was made aware by J.B. Jackson’s journal Landscape since 1951 and by the two architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown who published their influential Learning from Las Vegas in 1972. For the photographers of the FRG, on the other hand, the legacy of the Ruhr Area photography and the cultural criticism of the Frankfurt School constituted important points of reference.

The substantial photo book Unsere Landschaften (Our Landscapes), published by Martin Manz and Reinhard Matz in 1980, is one of the key publications of this time. (fig. 5) In this book both photographers present a thoroughly critical depiction of the structural transformation of the towns, a criticism of the urban development model of the car-friendly town in post-war Germany, just as the cultural critic Alexander Mitscherlich had done in Die Unwirtlichkeit unserer Städte (The Inhospitality of our Towns) in 1965.[21] In sinister black-and-white photographs Manz and Matz draw an extremely gloomy picture of the town, which is affected by massive concrete buildings and inner-city ring freeways. The photobook uses political motivation, quotes left-wing intellectuals such as Italo Calvino, Bertold Brecht and Karl Marx, and refers to a political understanding of art as a medium of sharing, exchange of opinions and activation of the responsible citizen. The photographic descriptions of the current situation that are dealt with here are transferred into statements with a very clear political direction. They are not to be understood, as is the case of Lewis Baltz, as purely visual, aesthetic statements.

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Fig. 5 Martin Manz and Reinhard Matz, Unsere Landschaften (Cologne: DuMont, 1980)

Heinrich Riebesehl’s Agrarlandschaften (1979) with its succinct depiction of the industrialization of agriculture and the structural transformation of village life can be regarded as the second decisive publication of the time. (fig. 6) Extensive monocultures and farmed areas, torn-up arable land and leveled fields show here how modern agriculture subjugates nature to the idea of profit yielding and time-saving. Riebesehl concentrates his statement, however, on the area of the aesthetic, i.e. he lets his pictures speak for themselves, like Baltz did. In the Workshop for Photography yet another representation of nature was developed. In the photographic series by the two lecturers of the workshop, Michael Schmidt and Ulrich Görlich, the wild bushes of town wastelands served as a metaphor for the changes in the relationship between people and nature. (fig. 7) Similar series were produced by the students of the workshop, for example by Ursula Wüst and Friedhelm Denkeler.[22] Independent of the Workshop for Photography, the photojournalist Wilfried Bauer developed a concept of resistant nature which reconquers the cities’ marginal sites, in his series Stadtbäume (City Trees, 1978-82). (fig. 8)

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Fig. 6 Heinrich Riebesehl, Ronnenberg (Hannover), November 1978, from the series Agrarlandschaften, 1976-79. © Archiv Heinrich Riebesehl / Dauerleihgabe des Landes Niedersachsen im Sprengel Museum Hannover, VG Bild-Kunst Bonn 2015

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Fig. 7 Ulrich Görlich, [Untitled], 1978, published in: Honnef, Klaus (ed.), In Deutschland, Bonn 1979. © Ulrich Görlich / VG Bild-Kunst Bonn 2015

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Fig. 8 Wilfried Bauer, Berlin-Tiergarten, Europachter, 1979, from the series Stadtbäume, 1978-1982. © Stiftung F.C. Gundlach

At the most important West German photographic training center of the time, the Folkwang School in Essen, other topics were the focus of interest, like the use of colour or the changes in photojournalism. Otto Steinert’s model of a photography inspired by the artistic creative force of the photographers was in fact being slowly replaced by a new interest in all forms of the documentary.[23] Nevertheless, together with the newly vitalized, artistically expanded concept of the documentary, the interest in the irreversible transformation of the Ruhr Area also flourished. Not only the conceptual approach of Bernd and Hilla Becher perpetuated the industrial monuments, which were in a state of decay with its photographic typologies, but also the long-term observations of Joachim Schumacher who began his documentation of the transformation of the Ruhr Area in the mid-seventies. (figs. 9 and 10) The notion of the maintaining and preserving adherence to historical substance in the medium of photography was absolutely central to his inventory of the landscape. More recent positions like those of the German photographer Bettina Steinacker continue this debate today and show new aspects of the transformation of the Ruhr Area and its natural landscapes, which took leave of its coal and steel industry as well as other heavy industries long ago.

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Fig. 9 Joachim Schumacher, Ruhrgebiet, 1977. © Joachim Schumacher

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Fig. 10 Joachim Schumacher, Ruhrgebiet, 1985. © Joachim Schumacher