My prevailing thought when reading through The Guardian’s article about New Topographics, was that a constant theme was present in the photographs all of the example photographers produced and was something I was becoming more aware, often helped contribute to a strong body of work. By photographing a set of different objects in a similar way, the viewer was almost forced to look at them plurally to understand what the photographer was trying to convey.
Also, although there was an underwhelming feeling of despondence at the ‘banal’ photography on show back then; one point was that while it may have been ‘banal’ in aesthetic terms, there were strong messages provoked behind and more to the point; the photographs told them quite truthfully; without romanticising the subjects in a way that might have been deceiving (for example not using flamboyant, expansive skies). I saw it as a means to help convey these strong messages, without pulling away from the truth.
However, I was struck that quite a lot of the themes for the sets of photographs used compositional devices that I had been deliberating using for some of my urban environment projects. These included skyscrapers looming over smaller buildings: ’skyscrapers that dwarfed period buildings’ – (O’Hagan, 2010) and using billboards to convey a message, while still being in its immediate context: ‘the vernacular iconography of America in road signs, billboards, motels and shop fronts’ – (O’Hagan, 2010). I essentially posed myself the question how I would plan to take similar subjects and use similar objects but make my images more interesting to express my creativity?
One answer I considered were long exposures, with figures present. The land features photographed would remain quite truthful to how I saw them but any human presence would still be obvious, although in a surreal, ghostly manner. Also, clouds moving might transform the sky above and to some extent the way the light fell on the objects below but the land features would remain largely the same. The figures and clouds moving could tell the passage of time if used effectively.
If the New Topographics exhibition was observed as being: an ‘almost dull reflection of the uniform and banal’ – (O’Hagan, 2010), for the typological approach the photographers adopted, then the photographs produced were quietly fulfilling the role of truthfulness and objectivity their respective creator’s apparently desired, with their true meaning unveiled when seen together in their respective sets.
My thoughts on typological approaches were mixed: it could be quite limiting in scope of what could be photographed once a particular subject was determined but almost any subject could potentially work typologically and a strong set was often produced from the resultant images. For me, I would endeavour to choose carefully my eventual subject(s) and then make each photograph similar in content but equally each separate photograph unique, if I was to commence a typological type project. I would do this by maybe employing long exposures for figures in the foreground and clouds overhead. This might mitigate the repetitiveness of the photographs, while retaining interest individually and collectively.
The strictly regimented typological photography by the Bechers in their many typological sets of photographs, wouldn’t allow much room for variation though, otherwise the effect of similarity would likely be lessened if there were figures or clouds present. ‘Blast Furnaces’ – (Bechers, 1975), for example shows a set of blast furnaces from the same angle and with tight framing present. It would be difficult to see how each photograph might appear individual, without losing the overall impact. In fact, it could be argued that this was the intent of the Bechers’ when taking the photographs; so they could be mistaken for each other.
However, I felt there was room for some disparity in this type of photography, provided the subjects warranted it. Potential subjects I could see benefiting from such variation would include building sites, marketplaces or seafronts’ stalls; rather than the Bechers’ subjects, which almost demanded monotonous portrayal. As well as this bold decision by the Bechers to photograph their subjects in this manner, another facet of their work in my opinion was their (lack of) use of colour. For me it matched very well the utilitarian style of photography (utilitarian because their ultimate goal was in my reckoning for the viewer to see the photographs produced typographically as a whole). The black and white of course emphasised this uniformity further, by removing any discrepancies in colour that would have been evident. The reasoning behind their desire for the viewer to see the photographs as a whole set, was to convey a message, which I believe was one of creating a kind of unity in objects that were disappearing as one – ‘the desire to document disappearing industrial architecture in and around 1959-1962’ – (c4gallery.com, 2015) – (accessed on 19/5/2015).
In my eyes, the most salient message Lewis Baltz talked about in his video with TateShots, was when he stated: ‘for me a work of Art is something that is interesting to think about, more than something is interesting to look at.’ – (Baltz, 2012). While I realise that is his opinion, my opinion varies greatly; in so much as, by a photograph possessing certain aesthetic values, the viewer is presented with something that is so interesting to look at that they are left with an impression or something to think about anyway. If they deduce the message behind the photograph because it is obvious to them and the photograph is told in a beautiful or sublime manner, then the viewer is left with both values. However, it may be possible that Baltz, through minimalism, has found a way to convey such meaning without beauty; that there is not such a need for beauty but rather, meaning is more desirable. ‘Photography begins with a world that’s perhaps overfull and needs to sort out from that world what’s meaningful.’ – (Baltz, 2012). This quote I agree with completely at the moment, because I have seen a lot of my ‘more satisfactory’ photography in my eyes being produced when the photography is minimalistic, or order has been drawn from the disorder of the world.
Baltz, L. (2012). TateShots: Lewis Baltz [Video] TateShots. London: Tate Modern
O’Hagan, S. (2010). New Topographics: photographs that find beauty in the banal. [Online] The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/feb/08/new-topographics-photographs-american-landscapes [Accessed 30 Apr. 2015].