Depth of Field, volume 7, no. 1 (December 2015)Maartje van den Heuvel: New ‘Masters’ of Dutch Landscape. Photographs of the Most Man-Made Land in the World

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New Topographics

The New Topographics exhibition in 1975 at the George Eastman House showed Photographs of Man-altered Landscape, as the subtitle says, using works by the photographers Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore, and Henry Wessel, Jr.[3] The photographs featured modern additions to the American landscape that had not been part of traditional landscape imagery, like suburban areas, industrial sites, modernist business buildings, and motels. Or, as the 1975 press release put it: ‘The most vulgar aspects of our society seem neutralized as the result of this topographic approach. The viewpoint is anthropological rather than critical, scientific rather than artistic.’[4]

What is typical of the viewpoint that is addressed in the title, is the fact that attention had shifted from the landscape as a pristine majestic nature or wilderness to places that previously were considered uninteresting for art, especially places where man had left his mark. Whereas in traditional landscape painting, nature controlled the scene and man lived in it in the humble position of a shepherd, farmer, or fisherman, in the photography of the New Topographics man thoroughly controls and shapes his environment. The New Topographics drew attention to the phenomena of industrialization, urbanization, globalization, and increased mobility. New types of buildings and environments resulted from modernization of the landscape, like industrial sites and highways, were new environments to be visually explored.

Although the New Topographics movement can by no means be considered ‘green’, it matches a growing concern in society as a whole for the environment. Three years before the New Topographics exhibition, the 1972 book Limits to Growth by the Club of Rome was published.[5] It is iconic for the alarm many people felt about the ecological crisis resulting from a century of industrialization, urbanization, explosive population growth, and globalization. The focus on the influence of man on his environment can be seen as one of the ‘cultural expressions on landscape, nature and the environment’ as a response to ‘the global environmental crisis’ that has been the subject of eco-criticism in the humanities since the 1970s.[6]