Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Built Environment and Photography

The above composite of photographs taken by Hilla and Bernd Becher appeared in the 1975 exhibition The New Topographics: Photographs from a Man-Altered Landscape at the George Eastman House in Upstate New York.  Like many of the pictures in this exhibition, the black and white documentary stare of the camera presents what seems an objective perspective on scenes of industrial production.  The majority of the pictures at the Eastman House were taken in black and white, and were starkly depopulated.  They present stark landscapes created by "man," but devoid of his presence.  Now,  a new show (that I am absolutely flipping out about since my girlfriend told me about it [I might have to go alone, I'll be so annoying])  at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Photography called Public Works demonstrates the multiple directions that artists have taken the lessons of New Topographics
Some background on the built environment in photography

As has been well-documented, especially after the exhibition's retrospective run in the US, The New Topographics represented a stark shift in ideas about the potential for and purpose of photographic representation.  In an excellent collection of essays Reframing the New Topographics, published by Columbia College (Chicago) this March, critics reconsider the role of this landmark body of pictures (I previously wrote about the collection and Arcade Fire's album The Suburbs).  Nearly all of them point out that few actually attended the original exhibition.  Those who did rejected the influence of the academy on photographic production.  Many of the artists had earned -- gasp -- MFA degrees in photography, and their studied framing of the landscape seemed sterile to many.  Established photographers, who had been fighting the outsider status of photography, worried that young artists were falling victim to the critique that had hampered the acceptance of the art form as a form of high art: they were letting their cameras do the work.

Yet in the 35-odd years since New Topographics, the representation of built environments has shifted dramatically, largely thanks to the aesthetic choices made by the artists in that show.  Artists had recognized the political potential of documentary representation in photography, but it became accepted within the artistic establishment to pursue this objectivity--that is, to embrace the lens's credibility and exploit it as a means of making aesthetic and political arguments.

In light of this exhibition, and some exciting young photographers whose work I saw this past weekend at ArtChicago, it seems possible to argue that two main contemporary perspectives on "built environments" (perhaps an updated moniker for "man-altered landscapes") have emerged.

Environmental Disaster and the Working Class Ordinary

The British photographer Martin Parr represents one direction: repopulating the built environment.  Throughout his career, Parr has seemed to focus on the consequences of filling the blank industrial, suburban, and exurban landscapes presented by the artists in The New Topographics.  Most notably in his series The Last Resort (images made in 1983-6), the working class of Britain is portrayed on holiday in the polluted "oasis" of Brighton Beach, long a seaside retreat for Londoners.

In wide landscape shots of Brighton, Parr's photos capture cranes and cargo ships on the horizon.  In close ups, they often focus on those who will inherit the destroyed built environment: children.  Parr places young children front-and-center in the frame, in bathing suits or naked, playing among trash and industrial machinery.  Some of the images at first seem documentary -- simple narratives of family life on the beach.  But they also have an overtly dark, ironic, and politically charged subtext.  These "retreats" for the working class are nothing like the idyllic locales populated by the rich, generically displayed as places where solitude is sought (say, for example: this).  Rather, they are spaces where the lower middle enjoys the pleasures affordedby repopulating landscapes that had been abandoned to industrial production.

When the built environment is reconstituted as a site of working class recreation, as Parr demonstrates, the consequences are images that demonstrate the precarious nature of life as the working poor, and its proximity to the environmental consequences of capitalist production.  In contrast to the bare facts of economic activities (the landscapes of New Topographics), here are the emotionally rich portrayals of a population at "play" amid the refuse of contemporary life.

[As a coda here, Parr's more recent work considers what happens when these middle class desires for basic forms of recreation begin to arise in developing nations.  His photos of beaches and ski resorts are They display populations still enamored with the idea that consumption can produce environments laden with possibilities for transcendence of ordinary drudgery.]

The Emotional Life of Machines: In Awe of Circulation

Another direction for photographers (and one that seems to have emerged more recently, though I could be off base here), is the reintroduction of emotional registers into landscape photography.  Frank Breuer's photographs of containers are featured in Public Works.  Jon McNeals pictures are not, but they are nevertheless pertinent to the conversation that the exhibit is enacting.  They seem to be probing whether the machines of production and circulation can inherit or begin to embody the emotions of humans who build them.  Rather than merely documenting the built environment, these images are full of playful juxtaposition and are often downright pretty.

Consider the humorous slogans of the DelMonte trucks in Antwerpen, the "cute" truck against a green backdrop in Liege, and the almost other-wordly uncanny presence of an airplane in Mojave.  Breuer's work features images of objects that seem to be posing their own quirkiness for the camera.  He captures the unique weirdnesses possible in contemporary life, where goods circulate the globe at unprecedented speeds and find themselves in unexpected places.  The shots are close-in, and don't allow for the kind of sweeping political considerations that are more alive in Parr's work.  So, for example, we don't think about environmental destruction when we see a trailer in front of trees.  We see a funny juxtaposition.  We don't see the conditions of mass food consumption when we see the DelMonte trucks.  We see the kitschy slogan.  The pictures help us see how production attempts to conceal itself in the ordinary.

By contrast, McNeal's photographs are beautiful objects.  Here, we arrive at what might be the most recent iteration of photography that inherits *something* from The New Topographics.  Where the 1975 exhibit documented the sublime size and scope of man's effect on his environment, McNeal's photographs portray the aesthetics of industry.  We get setting suns over cranes, and extreme (and, it cannot be said enough, beautiful) perspectives on interstate exchanges.  This is production at its most appealing, its most apparently symbiotic with the environment.  And yet at the same time, McNeal seems to help us consider why we believe these scenes to be beautiful.  His images don't praise the beauty they portray, but rather ask how we come to lavish praise upon ourselves for our industriousness.


  1. I read your piece about new topographies and was really excited. The Bechers are in part responsible for establishing photography as an essential post-modern medium, and for producing my favorite school of contemporary photographers. Something to add to your opening framing of them that complicates the early lack of interest in their work is that by being essentially the first conceptual photographers, they actually opened the door for an entire new generation of artists that used photography as post-modern critique. While their photographs are meant to look sterile, stark, and documentary, they are in fact highly crafted and constructed images. They spent hours gaining impossible perspectives in order to construct a false sense of continuity between these structures, exposing the photograph not only to be a constructed subjective image, but to be far from the perfect document. This led the way for artists like Jeff Wall and their actual Dusseldorf students Andres Gursky and Thomas Ruff to probe further with their contemporary critiques of the medium, driving into the history of painting and photography's complex and controversial relationship to it. As you said, the Bechers were the first conceptual artists to "exploit" the associations viewers have with the medium as a documentary mode, turning this "trust" on its head by creating false documents, that were as constructed as paintings. art rant!

  2. I love art rants!

    I was very close to talking about Gursky in this post, and think it turns out I was way off base about him.

    One question I have for you is about the Dusseldorf School photogs in general. I can't think of how to fit some of their work into the framework I've laid out here primarily because they were interested in interior spaces (Cathedrals, libraries, shopping malls, supermarkets) in a way that some of these other photographers that I've talked about here are not.

    Do you think it's possible to think of them (and sure, I know they did a TON of stuff in landscapes too) as an inverting of this aesthetic of the built environment? I don't know quite what I'm saying here except that it seems possible to think of them as inverting, but still conversing with, the logic of artists like those above.

    The thing is they're more interested in aestheticizing the interiors of those built spaces. Something like getting inside the human, yet v. grand space of "late capitalist" life.

    Told you I liked rants too.