Depth of Field, volume 7, no. 1 (December 2015)Raphaële Bertho: On Both Sides of the Ocean – The Photographic Discovering of the Everyday Landscape. Analyzing the Influence of the New Topographics on the Mission photographique de la DATAR

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The Rise of the ‘Everyday Landscape’

Equipment and communication infrastructure, the emerge of consumer society, the rural exodus and growing urbanization have left a lasting imprint on the physiognomy of territories in al Western countries. On the traditional dividing line between the city and the countryside, areas with an indeterminate identity have been grafted, such as housing estates, supermarkets, warehouses. More recently these territories reveal other aspects, due to deindustrialization and economic crisis, with the extension and multiplication of urban ‘no man’s lands’. This modernization of the country has transformed landscapes and has created new ones. Facing these shifting, it seems necessary to reassess the meaning of ‘landscape culture’:[16] a set of mental representations of concepts, images, symbols and myths shared at a time on a territory by one ethnic group or nation. La Mission photographique de la DATAR, just like the works of the New Topographics participated in this broader movement of reflection on the landscape, its definition and its future. In both cases, the goal

Earlier in the century, the cultural geographer John Brinckerhoff Jackson became one of the leading thinkers with his interest in the ‘vernacular landscape’: how American habits altered the cities’ and suburbs’ appearances. He developed his reflection from the 1950s on, particularly through the magazine Landscape of which he was the publisher and editor between 1951 and 1968, and deepened it in his essay Discovering the Vernacular Landscape (1984). According to him, the reality of daily life could not be ruled out, under the precondition that it no longer corresponded to the conception that one had of the territory. His principle was that any landscape has a cultural meaning shaped by the people, and that it reflects their lifestyle and values in a tangible way. As such, mobile homes, gas stations, and billboards became part of the landscape. Jackson’s way of considering the landscape had a crucial impact on the thinking of geographers, anthropologists, architects and visual artists. Without detailing the various collaborations that have contributed to the development of new representations of the contemporary, it may be noted here that the 1975 exhibition’s subtitle A Man-altered Landscape in this regard clearly refers to this vivid discussion ignited by Jackson. The everyday landscape was already taken up by the zeitgeist and the photographers of New Topographics tried to grasp it, like those of the Mission photographique de la DATAR.

In the same way, the French project took part in an intellectual movement that exceeded the needs of the DATAR as an institution or the limits of the photographic field, with the emergence of a genuine landscape policy of which the Mission photographique was one of the first instalments. Indeed, the state institution was seeking to renew the modes of perception of the territory and the landscape, and the view from the ground appears to offer much richer possibilities than the formerly used map or view from above. The choice of perspective, which involved the fragmentation of perception and definition of a frame, was understood as a political process involving ecological, economic, historical and social stakes and above else aesthetic stakes. In a text commenting on the work of photographers in the 1989 catalogue of the Mission, the French philosopher and geographer Augustin Berque stressed how these photographic works foreshadow the birth of a new culture of landscape: ‘We are witnessing at this moment the birth of another landscape. And if that’s the case, then it is better that we help its birth by learning to do and see this new landscape, instead of diverting our gaze to illusory vestiges of the past, or resign ourselves to love Big Brother the parking...’[17] (figs. 7 & 8)

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Fig. 7 Frank Gohlke, Landscape, Los Angeles, 1974. © Frank Gohlke, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.

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Fig. 8 Albert Giordan, Espaces commerciaux, Midi, 1984 / La Mission photographique de la DATAR. © Albert Giordan.