The New Topographics
Legefork, Utah, 2021
Two of my photographer friends, PJ Finn and Alexander Kunz have recently referred to The New Topographics, an exhibition in 1975 where a collection of photographers who broke away from typical landscape imagery (think Ansel Adams) showed instead a landscape altered by human interaction, sprawl, transformation and destruction.
It got me to thinking about some of the human-altered landscapes that have become iconic and just as important and venerable as that once pristine land. I remember a few years back when some idiot did that silly, flaming steel-wool trick on the Point Reyes, an iconic shipwreck in northern California and burned the ship nearly to it's keel. People were outraged, both by the stupidity of the individual and by the loss of a photographic icon. This led me to other man-made structures that, through age, historical significance, or just popularity have become venerated and culturally significant. Think of how we'd feel if Moulton Barn burned or Thoreau's tiny cabin in the woods. Consider how you felt watching Notre Dame burn. There must be a dozen man-made items marking the land each of us could come up with that if destroyed would leave its own dark stain on our memory.
So, how old and established do these 'marks' have to be to transition from scars to treasures? While The New Topographics was focused on sprawl from post-WWII and how we were changing the environment in an undesirable way they could have, 100 years earlier, said the same about Moulton and his barns. Now, I doubt very seriously that any section of urban sprawl will become loved and treasured like Morman Row or even the Point Reyes but history has yet had her say in this. Walking around rural areas in Maine I see miles of beautiful, moss laden rock walls that once dissected the land forming farms and properties. Would those walls be included in The New Topographics collection if Robert Adams, Lewis Balz and that group had done their work 100 years earlier?
If we're still on this planet 100 years from now will we look back at The New Topographics and smugly smile at how silly they were to think urban sprawl and de-forestation were something to be concerned with? The more urban photography I do the more I appreciate the photographic aesthetics of these subjects. Perhaps it's too soon to worry that in the future they may become what we think of when we hear "Landscapes." Let's hope not but consider also that the work of those photographers is now collected and considered fine art.
Icon or Early Urban Sprawl?
Morman Row, Wyoming, 2021