Depth of Field, volume 7, no. 1 (December 2015)Suzaan Boettger: Whispers and Cries: Photographic Evocations of the Anthropocene

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This paper addresses the ‘problem of style’ that curator William Jenkins declared at the beginning of his catalogue essay on the New Topographics was ‘at the center of the exhibition’. It argues that rather than being ‘anthropologically’ detached, the New Topographics’ emotional reserve was a style. Its approach was consistent with contemporaneous New York painting and sculpture’s rejection of 1950s’ Abstract Expressionism’s emotional drama and allusive non-objectivity. Fusing 1960s’ Pop Art’s attention to mundane commodities and Minimalism’s reductive cubes, the New Topographics focused on geometric form and high contrast clarity applied to generic modernist suburban buildings. Yet their rejection of pictorial conventions of landscape in favour of environments strongly constructed by humans disrupted the ideal of nature as respite. Their banal urban and suburban landscapes featuring arrays of blocky factories and industrially manufactured residences present an early, implicit evocation of the Anthropocene. That work can then be recognized as a precedent to a prominent subject matter among current photographers of more overtly displaying our geological era’s disproportionate impact by humans on natural ecologies in images emphasizing the scale and extent of extraction, construction, consumption and waste.