Looking at the work of Ansel Adams it is hard not to stand in awe at the magnificence of nature’s landscapes yet Adams himself as a staunch conservationist was becoming increasingly despondent at man’s constant encroachment into his beloved natural environment. But whilst Adams aimed his lens at America’s national parks other photographers were taking a completely different approach to their picturesque panoramas.
In January 1975, William Jenkins opened the New Topographics: Photographs of a man altered landscape exhibition at the international history of photography museum in Rochester, New York.
This showcase of images featured notable photographers such as Bernd and Hilla Becher, Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz and displayed a contrasting view to the accepted artistic ideology of landscape photography. These images showed the everyday structures and buildings that now dominated our environments, removed of any creative flair these seemingly banal buildings were rich in visual detail and presented the viewer with an original topographical perspective on their everyday surroundings.
Although the initial reception of this exhibition was poor it has gone on to become an international inspiration for many other photographers and the core aspects have not been limited to landscape images. The unique ability, through detail, composition or lighting to provoke interest into seemingly dreary places or objects has become a critical aspect to understanding photography as a whole.
My New Topographies
In my first attempt to create an image from a quote I went looking for something that would work when placed centrally within the frame. The rule of thirds is one of the first compositional techniques that you learn but there is always the cautionary note that sometimes the image will work better if those rules are broken.
Born in 1904, Hamburg, Germany he disowned his native country and moved to England. Initially Brandt was a traditional painter and his early work already demonstrated his liking for simple compositions.
He began his photographic education in the 1920’s and soon moved to Vienna, Austria where he began working in a photography studio. Induced by the surrealist movement his work drew on the influences of Eugene Atget and Man Ray who Brandt worked with for several years.
After moving to England he became well known for his night time images on the streets of London where he documented the social and economic effects on the lives of the working classes prior to and during the Second World War.
After the war he experimented with nudes and remaining true to his surrealist leanings and using a wide angle lens he created distorted and unnatural shapes from his subjects.
I wanted to keep within my own defined parameters of new topographics and I felt this underpass made an ideal subject. I was reminded of the Bill Brandt quote as I was instantly struck by the simple symmetry of the tunnel and found its shape and leading lines from the lighting and tile patterns welcoming. The decaying and derelict feel stood in stark contrast to the appealing and pleasant landscape scenes or cityscapes that usually attract photographers and it was this contrast that drew me to this structure and why I felt it fitted into the category.
Edward Weston is one of the foremost recognised American artistic photographers of all time.
Born 1886 in Highland Park Illinois, Edward Weston was the son of Edward Burbank Weston and Alice Jeanette Brett. His father was an obstetrician and mother a Shakespearean actress. Weston’s mother died when he was only 5 and he became distanced from his father and closer to his older sister Mary.
Weston’s father re-married 4 years later, further straining the already fractious relationship and Weston failed to form any real bond with his new step mother and brother.
Mary married and moved away in 1898 further isolating Weston whom left school and retreated further into himself, At 16 Weston’s father bought him his first camera. A Bullseye #2 and Weston’s affair with photography was born.
Weston set up his own portrait studio in 1911 but his primary focus was the artistic conception of images through a photographic format. In 1913 Margrethe Mather walked into his studio and became perhaps the single biggest influence on his career. A woman of stark contrast to Weston’s wife, she was a former prostitute and involved in the increasingly popular bohemian culture scene in Los Angles. Promiscuous, bi-sexual and with a greater liberal moral attitude she introduced Weston to a side of life that he had previously never experienced.
Weston initially achieved recognition for his early soft focus pictorialism. A style of photography that was very popular during the late 19th and early 20th centuries that emulated current artistic styles of the time. But it was Weston’s work with the mundane objects that elevated his reputation to new heights. Weston saw a power and form in nature and through his unique skill brought new depth to everyday items.
My second image followed quickly from the first as I attempted to get a feel for this subject. Influenced by the Edward Weston quote about daring to experiment it set my mind awash with ideas.
Coventry is city with a network of subways and I wanted to explore them further. These areas pose a high risk for crime so preventative measures have been taken by the local council to install CCTV. As reassuring as they are you cannot shake off that sense of being watched and I would argue that although we have not quite reached the dystopian depths of Orwell’s 1984 I was still caught by the notion of who watches the watchers? With this in mind I chose to stand very close to the camera and blatantly take pictures of it all the time imagining some indignant security official bristling with rage at the audacity of someone taking his photo. Once again I attempted to incorporate the locations decrepit charms, leading lines and subdued lighting for better effect.
In 1922 during the aftermath of World War One which saw the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a teenage Yusuf Karsh chose to leave his family and flee his homeland. Having already witnessed siblings fall victim to the political turbulence that saw new regimes vying for power this young Armenian began the long and arduous journey for the shores of America. Landing in New York where he went to live with his Uncle. George Nakash was a photographer and introduced Yousuf to the world of photographic portraits. Recognising his Nephews precocious talent he organised an apprenticeship with Boston based photographer, John Garo.
Karsh became an artisan of light and used this to great effect in his portraits and his already growing reputation reached international proportions with his iconic portrait of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Shape it, sculpt it, and paint with it. Learning to use light effectively can have a critical impact on how new topographical imagery works. The source of illumination can vary but its ability to transform the commonplace nature of our everyday environments is astonishing and although he is primarily a portrait photographer I felt that this was what Yousuf Karsh was referring to when he spoke about his photography.
After creating my first two images in quick succession I then wandered the campus aimlessly for some time. I had originally set off just before dusk with the Yousuf Karsh quotation in mind and the hope of a dazzling sunset that would illuminate some dreary scene but the skies were thick with heavy grey cloud and the sun made a colourless exit from behind its hazy veil. Once the evening had arrived I found myself outside the Herbert Art Gallery, an area not lacking in charm during daylight hours was now awash with artificial lighting and it was here I took the above image of the row of benches. I did not have my tripod with me and the low light made hand-held work virtually impossible so I was forced to balance my camera on my bag which was fortunately just the right height. Having walked through this area several times before this was the first time I had noticed these four benches lined up alongside a wall sculpture and their wooden slat construction and positioning creates a line to lead the eye into the image. The row of floor lights just in front of the benches throws its light onto them and the polished finish to the varnished surface bounces the light around this enclosed little area. There was even sufficient foliage left on the trees further reflecting the light back onto the scene. Beyond the benches and trees the street lamps light the rest of the area and the wide-angle ensured sufficient depth of field even with the larger aperture used to keep the background in focus.
Elliot Erwitt is a street photographer who works in a discreet and unobtrusive manner. This surreptitious methodology allows him to capture satirical images full of fun and a little irony.
Years of practice have bestowed upon Erwitt a seemingly uncanny ability to seek out unique moments where he is able to almost sense when something special is about to occur. These opportune moments to see beyond the banality of your surroundings and harness its potential are what makes Elliott Erwitt’s images compelling viewing.
I was out again the following morning, armed with more quotes. Rather than just mimic the quote or read it at face value I wanted to understand what the photographer was really trying to say. I was loitering around ‘The Hub’ and had placed my camera on a nearby waste bin as I spent some time observing people passing by when I became aware that my presence had all of a sudden become unimportant. Prior to this my camera and I had been drawing plenty of attention and you could see the multitude of reactions from people the moment they think that someone might be about to take their picture. When faced with a lens the range of emotions that people experience will never cease to surprise me, from the reticent introvert to the gregarious entertainer the prospect of being captured in an image works as a catalyst for our fabricated personalities to emerge and send our genuine nature scurrying for cover. Using this new-found invisibility to my advantage I aimed my camera at a section which was being heavily traversed by students and it was here that I began to understand Elliott Erwitt’s quotation. Watching individuals negotiate their way around this part of the campus, completely oblivious to my existence with their true self for all to see came as something of a minor revelation. Here were the faces that I had seen in countless street photography images, openly flaunting their commonplace expressions and mundane appearances, goading the would be photographer to attempt to capture their timid essences.
I waited patiently at this spot and carefully watched as the students walked by. I was looking for something a little unusual or someone who seemed to exude the eccentric characteristics prevalent amongst Erwitt’s images but after sometime I felt this was becoming increasingly unlikely. Just when I was thinking of giving up this girl marched round the corner with a long stride and a meaningful sense of purpose. Her appearance instantly conjured up images from television shows such as ‘Allo, ‘Allo’ where female German characters were created in a comedic stereotype. Her lengthy pig tailed braided hair, three-quarter length black leather look coat and military styled boots completed this amusing scene and no sooner had I clicked the shutter she had gone passed.
Moving on to another location I found myself near the library and the new engineering building. The architecture and block paving made for interesting patterns that I felt would enhance any image. Drifting around the area I once more began my hunt for interesting characters and my attention was caught by three young students engaged in a boisterous but friendly banter on a nearby bench. Whilst I was sizing up a decent composition and waiting for a discreet moment to take a picture a young Muslim girl wearing full Islamic dress was making her way up the path. The attentions of the three lads were drawn to her and so I took my chance to capture the image.
It was after when reflecting on the image that there was a frightening symbolism hidden within the picture. The hijab is an item of Islamic dress that is adopted and voluntarily worn by many women who wish to observe their chosen faith, however in some circumstances this garment has to be worn even if the person does not wish it. Like many religions Islam also suffers with the oppressive and misogynistic actions of many of its male adherents and for many the hijab has become a representation of that subjugation. At the same time this person was walking by the three ‘alpha male’ lads on the bench were staring across with seemingly contemptible expressions on their faces. As such I felt this image had captured a pertinent issue facing theocratic nations and monotheistic belief systems.
While I was researching Minor White I found his perspectives on photography fascinating. Suddenly many images I had made in the past made a great deal more sense and I found I had a significantly better understanding of them. When White talked about how objects, even banal ones can be transformed by light or by the way it resonates with the viewer then I began to realise that New Topographics extends beyond landscapes and has its influence in a huge range of photographic styles. Taking this new insight with me I made the decision to photograph something that on the surface seemed commonplace yet could be made to show greater meaning.
At first glance it is just a photo of a brick wall and aesthetically the repetitive and symmetrical pattern of the bricks were pleasing on the eye but I also felt this wall had the potential to epitomise its surroundings. The wall formed part of the student centre, a critical building within the institutions campus and since the new semester began there had been a relentless and constant flow of students using its facilities. To my mind it could arguably be considered the heart of the university and I began to consider the concept that each brick could represent a student and the cement an education. Individually the items still hold significance but when placed together they form a cohesive and powerful structure and an object far greater than the sum of its parts.
When I first saw Martin Parr’s ‘The Last Resort’ I was captivated by this incredible series of images. This particular sequence held greater prominence with me as someone who grew up in the 1980’s and I was easily able to relate to the scenes before me. Although I was born in the 1970’s my formative years came during the 1980’s and as a result I find myself united with the lives of those in New Brighton during this difficult period.
Martin Parr’s quote centred on a methodology of capturing images and this was something I wanted to try. I set up my camera in aperture priority using a wide-angle and suitable aperture to ensure sufficient depth of field, I also allowed the camera to select the best focal points. I then nonchalantly rested the camera on my arm and carefully kept my finger on the shutter release on the battery grip. Just off campus and not far from the student centre I saw these two chaps in conversation near a taxi cab. The discussion seemed friendly if a little animated so I ambled towards them, and positioned myself approximately six feet away. Taking Parr’s advice I then edged nearer attempting to get as close as possible without arousing suspicion. I then, with as much pretence as I could muster and feigning a sudden interest in something across the street turned and faced away but now aiming my camera towards my intended victims. Squeezing the shutter release I heard the focus locking on its target and so I fully depressed the switch and the mirror began hammering away inside its plastic shell. It was quite a surreal moment as the noise from the camera sounded to me like I had just pulled out a pneumatic drill and decided to begin work on the Gulson Road regeneration project. Certain that my inexpert attempts at clandestine image making were about to be exposed I nervously glanced round at my subjects. Happily for me they were none the wiser and were continuing to gesticulate with each other completely oblivious to my personal intrusion.
When I reviewed the image later I was quite pleased with it and happily gave a silent thanks to Martin Parr for his constructive guidance. In homage to his work which I have enjoyed immensely I chose to alter my image so it resembled the colouring and style typically produced by 1980’s film cameras similar to that used by Martin Parr for his ‘Last Resort’ series.
Using my new-found technique of carrying my camera in a surreptitious manner to capture the candid moments in people’s lives I walked passed a group of girls engaged in conversation. As I approached they suddenly stopped talking and all seemed to look in various directions, almost as though they were contemplating what had just been said. In a way it reminded me of Nan Goldin’s quote about people becoming oblivious to the camera as is permeates there lives so completely. Even though I was standing very close they did not mind my presence, almost as if I was sharing their private moment.
This next shot was taken from further away and it was the people that interested me. I had been watching them for a short while and my mind turned to August Sanders quote about an honest and truthful image. These two women no doubt work nearby, probably in a customer facing role and in the interests of customer service no doubt present themselves in a very different manner. However when stood outside, away from their posts and smoking a cigarette they loose that happy persona and revert back to their usual selves. I felt this fitted well with August Sanders quote. In addition to this I also liked the red stop light directed at the two smokers as it felt like they were telling them to quit.
According to Helmut Lang’s quote Jeurgen Teller has a reputation to say through his photography what others are afraid to. The above image was one I had originally rejected and it was only when I was taking a second look through that I believed I saw something in this that related to the quote. For me the image is a statement about the increasing problems of obesity in the UK, The issues that exist stem beyond the fact that it is on the increase but that for many it is not even a concern and that being overweight has become the norm. The body language of the girl above coupled with the unflattering clothing suggests she is quite blasé about her figure. This coupled with the chocolate bar she was eating and even having crumbs spilling onto her shirt adds to that feeling. I felt this was a controversial issue and there are many people who would argue that being overweight is not an issue and that people have the right to be however they want to be. This was not so much a statement of my opinion more just a representation of a contentious issue.
This New Topographics project has really brought clarity to certain images. Previously there were photographs that I enjoyed but found it hard to understand why, now through learning about this unique point of view I understand that any subject or object could become a great photo when placed in the right context light. I was also happy with my images and the way I achieved them. I do not consider myself someone with a natural artistic flair so to get good photos I need to understand the image style and the photographers behind them. Being someone of a logical and somewhat cynical mind it has always been difficult to engage emotionally with artists who I generally find to be illogical and whimsical. On this occasion I really felt like I had started to understand and this stems from the recent books I read by Charlotte Cotton and Elinor Carucci and the video by Nan Golding. As a result part of me started to open up and allow this introspective side some room to breath. I can not say I am truly comfortable with it yet as It makes me feel vulnerable, susceptible and gullible but it is something I need to allow if I am to really improve my creativity.
For me the exhibition in America was not the start of ‘new topographics’ but rather signalled a defining point in photographic history. This was a realisation and a catalyst for artists around the globe and one that still feeds our beauty from banality creative nature today. Images can show us majesty, breath-taking scenes of nature’s splendour and whilst these can touch us and move us to act it is the mundane and predictable that perhaps makes us stop and reflect. When I look at the images from that exhibition I get a feeling of contentment and relief, a sense that the grass is not greener on the other side. They are not showing me the world at its best, they are not telling me ‘wish you were here’, they are telling me that boring can be brilliant, that tedious could be terrific and most of all it has taught me that an image is not all about what you look at in a picture but also what looks back.