New American Topographics
“Is it possible to negate style, to make a photograph that is style-less?... To recognize one’s antecedents… and to elect to make
pictures that look a certain way is a stylistic decision, even if the effort is to subdue the intrusion of style in the picture”.
William Jenkins, 1975
I have to confess a profound attraction towards the everyday suburban and roadside American landscape. From the time when I
reviewed the work of the artists that took part in the 1975 ‘New Topographics’ exhibition held in New York, mainly Stephen Shore, Robert
Adams and Lewis Baltz, I knew it was going to be a delightful personal entertainment. The word ‘attraction’ that I have used is significant
since, as Walker Evans remarked in the 1970s, sometimes there is no deeper justification for our acts and obsessions: we photograph
what is in front of us and attract us, like Mallory attempted to climb Mount Everest just because it was there. I also have, like Evans, an
hungry eye (or at least I try to feed it): I like to see and observe and this is to me straight, intellectual and aesthetically satisfactory.
What is really impressive is that this American vernacular landscape is still there, here. When I first visited the US in the late 1980s I was
shocked to jump into another world, the world that belonged to the picturesque scenario constructed in my retina by the movies. Today,
25 years later, this world is absolutely familiar, mainly because the globalization has also moved overseas the same landscape of the
American consumption and transformation of the territory: highways, shopping centers, suburbia, commercial main streets, motels,
no-places, and so on. I like this common ground, regardless how ordinary, ugly or unexciting it may be. In fact, this paradoxical balance
between progress and degradation, boredom and relevance, rejection and attraction is inside the core of what the New –or Old–
Topographics is all about.
Why ‘Old’ Topographics? It’s somehow a naïve wordplay but as I say this repertoire that these artists understood was new at their time
today is at the same time old –and abandoned in the case of some particular facilities– but contemporary. It’s old but the spirit of novelty
that depicting that contexts had for those photographers is still part of the very essence of the early 21th Century American built
environment. Those spaces that Stephen Shore assessed like ‘Uncommon’ are today absolutely common, even picturesque, and
consumed by both the unwitting people –proud to see in there some expressions of national identity– and part of the artistic circle. New
Topographics has become a style or label and I am not ashamed to recognize me in that way of looking.
Whereas in 1975 this exhibition was a survey of its now and here, I question myself if today the content of this double series “Old
Topographics” –with photographs taken on the American Southwest– is really the ultimate, sincere and neutral expression of a
particular cartographic reality. There is not estrangement in depicting and mapping these colloquial architectures, billboards, roads,
streets or junked stuff: this is the ordinary and I am eligible to reassess this visual literacy with conviction, detachment and a certain
ironic aestheticization. Like Venturi and Scott Brown did in Las Vegas, I still believe that there are also many interesting outcomes and
insights to take out of them.
Iñaki Bergera. Written at the Center of Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona. July, 2012.