Two Different, Though Related Moments in the History of Photography
At first glance, William Jenkins’ 1975 exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-altered Landscape and the public commission of the Mission photographique de la DATAR conducted between 1984 and 1988 under the direction of Bernard Latarjet and François Hers have only little in common. Both events were formally very different: one gathered a dozen photographers while the other involved twenty-nine; one took place over a few months while the other extended over several years, one was accompanied by the publication of a modest brochure while the second gave rise to two voluminous works and an exhibition that enjoyed international dissemination. And finally one event remained very private at the time, while the other, on the contrary, worked to achieve greater acclaim. One may ask why these two events should be put on the same level. Despite these striking differences, the two events share the common point of being two important moments, two essential references in the history of contemporary landscape photography, marked by artistic ambition associated with a political issue.
Whereas the artistic quality was taken as self-granted for the US exhibition, due to the place of presentation, the artistic nature was often questioned as far as the Mission photographique de la DATAR was concerned. The status of the project, a public commission, still prompts suspicion of propaganda and state influence. In order to deconstruct these prejudices, it is necessary to review the history of the project.
The sponsor of the Mission photographique, the DATAR, was founded as an institution in 1963 and supervises territory planning on a national scale. It became a major player in the transformation of the country through the establishment of a policy of equipment and modernization. Early in 1984, the DATAR publicly announced the launch of a project of a new kind: a photographic mission. This project was conceived as an act of decentralization: at stake was the creation of a model of public action which purpose was to enable the institutions to take charge of the land’s interest in the landscape (community, national park, etc.). Furthermore, another objective of the Mission photographique was to support the artistic recognition of photography by its integration into the art world. From the beginning, the initiators claimed that photographers were artists, and photographs works of art.
The work presented at the George Eastman House in 1975 express in the same way political concerns related to the valuation of a renewed photographic aesthetic. Indeed there is a shift from environmentalism to ecological citizenship between the end of the 1960s and the 1970s. The defense of enchanted enclaves of wilderness leaves room for the call for individual responsibility and needs to state action to ameliorate environmental problems in cities, suburbs, and other everyday settings. In this context photographers of the New Topographics are part of an artistic movement that conceived images as part of a societal web. They ‘drew upon and helped usher in new aesthetic understanding of ecological citizenship’
As such, both photographic incidents became paragons of their time. Even though the exhibition or the mission were only simple steps in the careers of the participants – and not the actual cause of the emergence of a school or style – they function as historical landmarks, which manifested the dynamics that were at work in the photographic landscape, at the crossroads of issues of territory and photography.