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

To refer to this article use this url:

A Transatlantic Journey

How did the New Topographics’ photographs, along with some of their authors, cross the ocean in the early 1980s? Beyond institutional aspects, the photographers themselves created the most obvious links to set up the two photographic movements. From the very beginning, the Mission photographique displayed the work of Lewis Baltz in a poster of 1984, which additionally listed the photographic influences of the French project. The historian Jean-François Chevrier mentioned the New Topographics exhibition in his text La Photographie dans la culture du paysage (Photography in the landscape culture), published in 1985 in the first catalogue of the Mission accompanying the French work in progress.[3] So the manifestation was known and considered to be part of a living tradition in American landscape photography. This mention of the New Topographics by Chevrier belongs to a demonstration of the differences between the US and Europe, to underline an American continuity versus a French discontinuity.[4] This conviction at the time of a lack of vision of the landscape in France (which has been relativized since)[5] probably plays a role in the interest given to photographic creation on the other side of the Atlantic.

Concurrently, some photographers became aware of the New Topographics’ works even though their books were difficult to access, expensive to purchase and available only in a few libraries. Raymond Depardon discovered this American photography during his trip to New York in the summer of 1981, in particular the work of Walker Evans for the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s or Paul Strand’s book La France de profil (1952).[6] This influence is recognizable in his work Correspondances New-Yorkaises (1981), whenhe wrote ‘I want to make photos with a view camera. I want to make my family in the Dombes.’[7] Taking the example of these illustrious predecessors, he turned to the large format and decided to devote himself to the landscape, and especially that of his parents' farm in Villefranche-sur-Saône. Back from the US, Depardon realized his series La ferme du Garet and showed a radical change in practice, style and subject. In 1981, Bernard Birsinger participated in a masterclass in Zürich with Lewis Baltz, and met Robert Adams.[8] The affiliation between how Adams looked at the Colorado plateau and how Birsinger looked at the plains of Alsace is striking. (figs. 1 & 2) From the start, Jean-Louis Garnell was very attentive to photography's recent developments in the US. It is particularly through Sally Eauclaire’s The New Color Photography (1981) that he met the work of Stephen Shore and William Eggleston, which immediately influenced his still developing practice. (figs. 3 & 4) Garnell was one of the few photographers of the Mission photographique to work in a darkroom and in colour. Some of his pictures appear to be visual quotations from the work of Stephen Shore, similarly playing with the accumulation of commercial signs on roadsides, or those of deserted cityscapes.

In a second phase, the dialogue between photographers across the Atlantic is identified more directly with the participation of Lewis Baltz and Frank Gohlke in the second campaign of the French Mission photographique in 1987. The presence of the two American photographers in the premises and at the meetings of the Mission photographique opened an opportunity to exchange, to establish links of cooperation and even started friendships. This interpersonal dimension was probably stronger in terms of influence, but it is also more difficult to capture, evaluate and analyze.