The Burden of a Legacy
Participating in the same effort, pleading for a landscape revival, US and French photographers were confronted with the same problem: the power of representations rooted in visual culture, associated with territorial and national identities. Through their repetition in various media, these images have become a true ‘landscape injunction’: it is less about observing the environment than trying to adapt the representation, denying ‘what is’ in favour of ‘what might have been’. This leads to the reckless pursuit of an idealized vision, without conforming to a lived-in area, which is hit by invisibility, literally as well as symbolically. However, not everyone struggled with the same issues. François Hers, artistic director of the French Mission, reported this quote from the German photographer Holger Trülzsch, answering to the American photographer Lewis Baltz: ‘You do not understand the difficulty we have in Europe. We have centuries of representation of landscape painting behind us, and we must put together a Romanesque church, a phone booth and a petrol pump. We must manage historical and visual data more complicated than yours.’
The New Topographics’ work also borrowed the legacy of the sublime and the American West, introduced by nineteenth-century painters and photographers. In the two decades from 1860 to 1880 five major artists photographers dominated the scene: Carleton E. Watkins (1829-1916), William H. Jackson (1843-1942), Andrew J. Russell (1830-1902), John Hillers (1843-1925) and Timothy H. O’Sullivan (1840-1882). Their work, mostly commissioned in the context of government expeditions the ‘Four Great Surveys’, or private ones (financed by railway companies), were largely inspired by the theory of the sublime formulated in the late 18th century by the philosophers Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant. The photographers presented a virgin land to their contemporaries, a fascinating territory made of desert areas, of steep reliefs shaped by the elements, unfolding to the sight of the lone explorer. Despite this photographic inventory of an unsettled area, the ‘documentarian’ photographic description was always a form of imaginary construction, as the historian François Brunet says. In fact, there is no trace in these images of the historical realities of the American West at the time, with for example the denial of the presence of Native Americans. Despite its fictional nature, the vision of the Wild West is relayed, as is known, throughout the twentieth-century literary and visual creation, and lastingly permeates our minds. The outlook of the Sierra Club photographers like Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter is exemplary to this point of view. Their work, which dominated the practice of landscape photography for decades, represented the West as a sublime and wild nature separate from humanity. It affected the way in which the New Topographics addressed, a century later, those same territories and questioned the landscape. Indeed the main problem were the ‘vernacular’ modes of appropriation of these so-called virgin lands. Here, the major concern is to observe the modern settlement.
In Europe, the issue was totally different. The landscape tradition was shaped by picturesque and pastoral models of representation. Without repeating the history of landscape paintings, we can assume that these landscape archetypes were informed and disseminated particularly through the cultural industry and tourism from the late nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth century. Engravings and later postcards were a vector for the establishment of these folkloristic visions, as well as guides and travel books. The ‘landscape injunction’ was then transferred mainly to sites that were remarkable and to heritage that was either built or natural. Abandoning modern buildings, even the spectacular ones, this visual heritage put excessive value on a hedgerow countryside and the Haussmanian city, ancient ruins and the Renaissance abbeys. The markers of post-war economic, technical and social development, namely industries and major infrastructures, remain off-camera and were excluded from this elective perception of the territory. Moreover, we can note that a large part of the reflection on the European everyday landscape was organized around its antithesis: the notions of commonplaces, and soon ‘non-places’. In either case, those landscapes without any visible asset get their added value precisely from their ordinariness and familiarity. The work of the French photographer Tom Drahos is particularly exemplary from this point of view. (fig. 9) He composed mosaics from a set of clichés ‘without qualities’: they were distinguished neither by subject nor by shape. The photographer chose to photograph almost randomly, without framing, while travelling these territories without identity. All of them show the effects of a fragmented topography, in every sense of the word.