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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A ‘Topographic Style’

In addition to these links forged between the participants, which allows the bringing together of those two photographic moments, we also must consider the joint statement of what one might call a ‘topographical style’. Walker Evans’ famous oxymoron, the ‘documentary style’, is taken up here and slightly shifted in purpose.

Indeed it can be considered that these works are the heirs of this reflection on the photographic creation from the first half of the twentieth century and formalized by Evans.[9] In the case of the Mission photographique de la DATAR, a poster executed in 1984 presents explicitly some of the main references. Among them, we can find some individual photographers: Frenchmen like Edouard-Denis Baldus, Eugène Atget, and Charles Marville, the German August Sander and the American Walker Evans. All are major players in the definition of ‘documentary style’. To resume here the description given by the historian Olivier Lugon, this means that the photographer favors a neutral posture, though he/she shows his/her specific perspective through the framing, composition or light, all these elements aiming to create a seemingly neutral whole, making up the illusion of ‘objectivity’.[10]

The question of the document is central in the visual experiments conducted in the US in the 1960s. The photographers offered a detailed documentation of the world but this time devoid of commitment or will to reform, contrary to their predecessors of the 1930s.John Szarkowski, director of the Museum of Modern Art’s photography departmentpresented the three most prominent representatives of this movement in the exhibition New Document in 1967: Diane Airbus, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand. Faced with this modernist aesthetic emphasizing the visual impact of the single image, conceptual artists of the same period used photography to criticize the art world and its codes. From 1963 on Ed Ruscha published books in which he brought together thematic series of images ‘without quality’. In this archival perspective, the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, the only Europeans to participate in New Topographics, is a model of its kind.

In the early 1970s this part of the photographic production, which claims the quality of a work of art as well as the power of the document, is developed specifically toward the prism of the landscape. The genesis of the topographic tradition in photography became the subject of renewed attention in the years 1970 and 1980. Although known and disseminated for almost a century, the views of the West of Timothy O'Sullivan, William Henry Jackson and Carleton Watkins were rediscovered in the 1970s. Their pictures, taken mostly in the context of the ‘Four Great Surveys’, were of significant importance to the protagonists of New Topographics and constituted references. Similarly, in France, the launch of the Mission photographique de la DATAR was concomitant to the rediscovery of the Mission héliographique of 1851. This French public commission remained stuck in the silence of the archives before being updated by the work of curators and historians, the first of which being Bernard Marbot in 1979. A public presentation of this work was organized in 1981, and an article on the project accompanied the publication of the first work of the Mission de la DATAR. [11]This way of referring to nineteenth-century landscape photography also forms the basis for a critique of the photographic representation that dominated in the early twentieth century: the sublime tradition of the US or the picturesque tradition of Europe (see below).

To bring down the ‘mask of the charm of the landscape’,[12] the topographical aspect of the pictures was crucial for the way in which photographers on both sides of the ocean positioned themselves in the territory. In term of the subject, the curator and historian Britt Salvesen recalls that the use of the term ‘topographic’ is understood by Jenkins in the sense of the American Heritage Dictionary: ‘The detailed and accurate description of a particular place, city, town, district, state, parish or tract of land.’[13] In a more formal way, the historian Olivier Lugon describes the ‘documentary landscape’ as a ‘broad and overhanging view, that is to say a form where it is difficult [for the photographer] to impose its own brand to the composition.’[14]

It is striking that the series presented by Nicholas Nixon of Boston and Cambridge and Joe Deal of Boulder City and Albuquerque, as well as some pictures of Robert Adams of Colorado, perfectly fit this definition. (figs. 1 & 5) Similarly, in the French project, Gabriele Basilico saw his view of Tréport as exemplary of this perspective. (fig. 6) However, the topographic as a feature here seems more diffuse, punctuating the series of the photographers but never properly structuring them. We find traces of the topographic influence in some of the works of the DATAR’s photographers such as Jean-Louis Garnell, Raymond Depardon and Bernard Birsinger as mentioned above, but also Holger Trülzsch or Robert Doisneau. Trülzsch used a panoramic view of Marseille to present the structure of the city, and the great depth of field showed the coexistence of modern facilities with old neighbourhoods. The approach of Doisneau is spectacular in this change of perspective. The author of the humanist icons of La Banlieue de Paris (1949) retraced his steps, in large format and in colour, in photographing the ‘grands ensembles’ erected after the Second World War. The poetry of black and white gives way to an almost clinical observation of changes in these areas of the suburbs.


Fig. 5 Nicholas Nixon, View North from the Prudential Building, Boston, 1975. © Nicholas Nixon, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.


Fig. 6 Gabriele Basilico, Le Tréport, 1985 / La Mission photographique de la DATAR. © Gabriele Basilico / Studio Gabriele Basilico, Milan.

The American photographers, just like their European colleagues, grasped a form apparently obsolete, that of the topographic view, to invest it with a visual reflection on the contemporary. All used a ‘topographic style’ to picture their time with the greatest acuity. Their framed views were presented like ‘a meaningful whole, a network of traces and signs to decipher.’[15] The authors adopted a documentary-like neutrality, as promoted by Walker Evans, and offered a distanced and critical view on contemporary society through a formerly discredited genre: the landscape.