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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From ‘Topography’ to ‘Environment’

In the past forty years topographical landscape representations have perpetuated themselves to such an extent that speaking of a transnational ‘movement’ seems to be justified. The New Topographics exhibition of 1975 can be seen here as an important impulse. It is, however, wrong to represent it as the only initiator and start of comparable photographic approaches in western countries. Autonomous developments within the European photo scene have equally contributed with individual approaches and themes. The photography of the Federal Republic of Germany, the Mission Photographique de la DATAR in France right up to the intensive occupation of Dutch photographers in the nineties with related themes – in all these we can observe a change in the language of narrative. With the exhibitions Imaging a Shattering Earth: Contemporary Photography and the Environmental Debate (Meadow Brook Art Gallery, Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan, 2005) and Ecotopia (The Second ICP Triennial of Photography and Video, International Center of Photography, New York City, 2006) the designation of ‘environmental photography’ began to slowly replace the accentuation of the ‘topographic’.[30] So we can summarize that photographic practice has kept alive the occupation with the continuous change in the human-nature dichotomy for forty years. In addition, the photographic accentuations reflected the respective themes of their time and have made the shifting of focal points visible. The 2015 exhibition Landschaft. Umwelt. Kultur at the Museum für Photographie in Brunswick, Germany has shown some of these references and the photographic reactions to these historical debates. It consciously adapted the New Topographics exhibition’s subtitle of a ‘man-made landscape’, to point out that the influence of humans on the Earth, but also its discussion, has become even more severe and visible than in the 1970s. Since 1974, the general discussions of the boundary, shifting with the growth of suburbia, between town and countryside, the arising peripheral structures and the concentration of urban development, have all sensitized the population to the destruction of the environment.

Besides setting out a collection of historical case studies, the exhibition sought to argue more contemporary ways to explore topographic landscape matters. What ways of depiction of ‘nature’ and ‘landscape’ seem to actually correspond to our time in view of human intervention in the ecological balance? What notion of ‘nature’ can we still have in the age of climate change, in an era which is characterized by the loss of the diversity of species and the gradual uninhabitability of the Earth? What can still be considered as a contemporary, and critical representation of the ‘landscape’ in 2015? Looking back at the history of the New Topographics is at the same time looking at the future. Photographers of the present time are characterized by a strong interest in the periphery, the wastelands and unoccupied or wild niches of urban fringes. In her series Wasteland Ecology, Jennifer Colten investigates man-made edgelands as marginal, forgotten sites at the edge of civilization and the biodiversity, which has developed in these peripheral areas. It almost seems as if something like a natural space, autonomous from humans, has reconquered these shattered places. (fig. 13) Christina Capetillo’s photographs of the landscape, on the other hand, resemble scientific, technological typologies and are at the same time of captivating beauty. Flooded fields, edge strips or plants that have colonized the middle strips of the highways, have no practical use for people, but a space of contemplation is opened up by the graphic tenderness of the compositions. In turn, Carma Casulá and Rachael Jablo make the dichotomy of humans and nature a subject of discussion in a very humorous way. Jablo’s series Neighbors (2014) is devoted to the mute rivalry of neighbors which is carried out via the visibly effective greening of the living space and the ways in which green plants as a socio-biotope embody the standard of living of their owners. In Casulá’s series Al natural (2014), the humans adapt themselves and their leisure behavior to the changed circumstances, occupy and investigate the transformed cultural landscape in swarms in order to enjoy, above all, an unblemished ‘nature adventure’. Thus the Spanish photographer shows the complex reality of different types of landscapes formed by humans. (fig. 14) The New Topographics movement contributed considerably to establishing critical environmental representations in the canon of artistic photography. With countless themes and forms of representation of environmentally critical aspects, a complex and diverse discussion of the relevant issues has developed, which has been introduced and put into context by the exhibition Landschaft. Umwelt. Kultur.

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Fig. 13 Jennifer Colten, Field Note 8942, from the series Wasteland Ecology, 2014. © Jennifer Colten

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Fig. 14 Carma Casulá, El Soplao, from the series Al natural, 2014. © Carma Casulá