Photographing the Seventies: Rephotographing

PHOTOGRAPHY AS CONCEPT

The leading edges of Postmodernism were architecture and photography and film, all of which moved away from Modernism in the sixties. By the eighties, the shifts seen in these mediums would be characterized as “Postmodernism.” For a variety of complex reasons, the arts in general agreed that one era had ended and that the direction into the future was unclear. Postmodernism can be thought of as a pause to reflect upon the roots of Modernism. Therefore, the decades of the seventies and eighties were decades of art about art. These photographs required a new mode of viewing, not of appreciation for beauty or even of interest, but a way of seeing from the past as commentary.

Photography in the seventies was about photography, or to be more precise about mass media and the “image world.” Because photography was less tied to the art markets and were thrust more into the reality of the everyday, the photographers were more nimble and could move more quickly with the times. Clearly photography was impacted not only by political movements and the movies but also by Conceptual Art in fine arts. By conceptual photography, one means, to put it simply, photography about photography. Conceptual photography cannot be understood unless the viewer knows the point of reference.

By the seventies, the fact that photography became conceptual as is evidenced by the return to the original grounds of American landscape photography: nineteenth century America before it was modernized. These photographers focused, for the most part, on the West, the trope for “America” and the exploration and conquest of the “wilderness” that had to be “tamed” and “won.” It is important to place these photographic projects in a larger intellectual context of cultural critique. During the seventies and eighties the received narratives were being interrogated and American “history” was in the process of being rewritten.

For American photographers the reference point for a re-examination of the making of America would be the supposedly “innocent” survey projects that resulted in the landscape paintings and photographs of the vast vistas of the Land of the Free.  The question is—what has happened to the wilderness, to the scenery, to the open spaces?  The questions were what is landscape in a post-industrial society? what is landscape in a post-atomic society? With a spirit of detachment and investigation, photographers set out on new surveys, tracing the footsteps of famous photographers into the New West, or sometimes going into dangerous territories that had been “sacrificed” to the Cold War.

By the mid-seventies, these photographic explorations were well underway. In front of the cameras was an altered landscape and behind the camera was a long history of using landscape to craft an identity for the new nation. The photographers referenced their precursors, Thomas Cole, George Innes, Timothy O’Sullivan, Thomas Moran. These artists were also relying on the viewer’s knowledge of the famous photographs of earlier photographers who photographed beautiful scenery beautifully: Ansel Adams and Edmund Weston.  The New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape exhibition of  1975 at the George Eastman House showed the new photographers of the new “man-altered landscape,”  such as Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz.  This show officially launched the new and critical reinvestigation of an old tradition.

Adams and Baltz presented small black and white images that were as beautiful and as crisp as those of Ansel Adams. However, these images completely lack the rhetoric and the idealism of Moonrise over Hernandez, New Mexico (1941).  Adams showed, not the purple mountains majesty, but the mundane barren suburbs of Denver. Baltz showed, not the pristine wilderness of Utah but the destructive building of Park City for a ski resort. Without rhetoric these photographs can be seen as protests against the mass media production of anachronistic images of sublime landscapes of places that no longer exist.  Although these images of the sublime can be found in advertising and films, the reality is quite different.

The small black and white photographs of Blatz and Adams chart the growth of suburban tracts in the once pristine West. “I hope that these photographs are sterile, that there’s no emotional content,” Lewis Baltz said.  But it is hard to look at his row of pictures of Park City, Utah where the land is abused and raped, its resources exploited in the service of a ski resort for the very rich.  This disconcerting lack of center of interest is echoed in the work of Robert Adams, which is also a non-“landscape” landscape, that is, un/pictures/que, raising the question of why was this ordinary place photographed at all?  As John Szarkowski, stated, “Adam’s pictures are so civilized, temperate, and exact, eschewing hyperbole, theatrical gestures, moral postures, andespressivo effects generally, that some viewers might find them dull.”

Impacted by the new environmental movement, American Topographics was one of the major photographic attitudes of 1970s, concentrating on measurement of change with an eye to conservation and ecology.  Turning away from “America the Beautiful” and reviewing the altered environment with a self-conscious and sophisticated point of view, “Topographics” also implies a newly dead and deadpan look at the world. This new survey is one of the destruction brought about by the arrogance of the Enlightenment and science–a Postmodern “Course of the Empire,” a re-visioning of Thomas Cole two centuries later.

In America, photographers also looked at the impact of the Industrial Revolution upon the environment.  the rethinking and re-en-visioning of the land continued with the work of the  “Rephotographic Survey Project,” initiated by Ellen Manchester, Mark Klett, and Jo Anne Verberg in the summer of 1977.  This fascinating project was one of several re-photographic projects, which produced new photographs of old scenes made famous by nineteenth century photographers, such as Timothy O’Sullivan.  Each photograph by a Re-Photographer was made from the exact camera and lens positions, replicating time of day and point of view of, for example, William Henry Jackson.  The Re-Photographs show the impact of time and civilization upon what was once untouched wilderness.

Like the New Topographics approach, the RPS was an attempt to both mark the passage of time and to measure and record the effects of the human being upon the landscape. But beyond the obvious changes, such as telephone lines or new trees, for these photographs of the 1970s echo the grim disillusionment of the period, following the assassinations of the Kennedys and King and the disruptions of the Viet Nam war.  The 1970s is a period of withdrawal and disbelief, partly due to the cultural realization that “reality” lies and that photographic media is a propaganda medium.   Photography begins to employ the “photograph” ironically and painfully, dismantling its links to fine art and beauty and to idealism and hope.  To follow in the footsteps of the early landscape photographers is to follow in the footsteps of American cultural imperialism, to no longer be innocent.

The “landscape” is now suburbia, photographed laconically, in color, by William Eggelston or with an etched acidity in black and white by Lewis Baltz.  They follow in the footsteps of Arbus, as well, taking up her quest for the odd and the strange in the midst the normal and everyday, simply by framing and photographing this newly-made world of prefabricated landscape. Adams and Baltz focused on suburban settlements isolated in wide territories and Peter Goin, Richard Misrach and John Pfahl photographed nuclear test sites in the West, still radioactive. These are the Sacrifice Zones.

It is amazing but true, more atomic and hydrogen bombs have been dropped on American and territories than anywhere else. Perhaps because politicians on the east coast did not understand the scenery of the west, these territories were thought to be wastelands of little use. For decades, Nevada was bombed constantly and there are vast stretches in the west that are uninhabitable and will be dangerous for hundreds of years to come. The images of these blasted lands, scored and scarred by weapons, are a shocking counterpart to the west found by Andrew Russell. Here is a strange and almost unreal beauty and teach the viewer to look again and to see this blasted landscape as having its own unexpected sublimity–the terror of John Pfahl’s nuclear plants shining in the rising sun, pumping out suspicious steam, the horror of Peter Goin’s nuclear testing grounds of polluted soil, the shame of Richard Misrach’s killing fields of dead livestock, put to death by nuclear poisons.

Once we raise the issue of what is considered worthy of being photographed and why, the viewer then realizes to what extent the photographers of the New Topographics Movement challenged assumptions about “landscape” and “scenery.” The young photographers looked backward  and examined the results of “progress” without the idealism and myth making of their predecessors.  They were analytic and critical, re-seeing and re-looking at the American landscape of their own time.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.   Thank you.

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