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Book Review: New Topographics


Book Review New Topographics Reviewed by Tom Leininger When the catalog for the New Topographics show was first published in 1975 it was a small thin book with a softcover and sold for $7, which was considered high at the time. A press run of 2,500 copies meant that the book would be scarce. The new edition, published by Steidl is larger and imposing, much like the legacy of this show.

New Topographics. Text by Britt Salvesen, Alison Nordström.
 Steidl & Partners, 2013.
 
New Topographics
Reviewed by Tom Leininger 

New Topographics
Text by Britt Salvesen, Alison Nordström.
Steidl & Partners, 2013. Hardbound. 256 pp., Illustrated throughout, 11-3/4x9-1/2".

When the catalog for the New Topographics show was first published in 1975 it was a small thin book with a softcover and sold for $7, which was considered high at the time. A press run of 2,500 copies meant that the book would be scarce. The new edition, published by Steidl is larger and imposing, much like the legacy of this show.


During my graduate studies I borrowed a copy of the original book through interlibrary loan. I was initially surprised to get it, knowing the book to be rare and valuable. It was one of those, "I can't believe I am looking at this" book experiences. Poring over William Jenkins' essay brought some clarity to the questions I had about the idea of New Topographics. I wondered what the other images were in the show since only three images per photographer were published in the book. That reading experience gave me a greater appreciation for the idea of landscape photography.

Making pictures of the land, without people in the frame, is something that has challenged and perplexed me. Why do it? What is so special about the landscape? I am not Ansel Adams. His pictures are too dramatic anyway. Today it seems like there are a greater number of photographers making New Topographics-like pictures. I hear students talk about challenging the idea of the suburbs they grew up in and finding beauty in the ugliness of a Wal-Mart parking lot. The photographs in this exhibition were the precursor to photographs that are common now, which makes for a different reading of the photographs than was experienced in 1975.

New Topographics, by Britt Salvesen, Alison Nordström. Published by Steidl & Partners, 2013.

The photographers included seem like obvious choices looking back on it. Britt Salvesen's thorough essay goes through how and why the photographers were chosen along with a primer on the ideas informing the show and the medium in the middle 1970s. Salvesen explains how the photographers were all working individually and not part of a cooperative or cohort. Individually, each was working through an idea related to the landscape; seen collectively, there is a greater notion at work. Or is there? This is one of the issues touched on in the essay. Did Jenkins and the others realize it would have such an impact? The answer seems to be no. Many of those included have had long academic teaching careers, including Jenkins, so that could be a clearer answer to why this movement—that came together for this exhibition—flourished.

New Topographics, by Britt Salvesen, Alison Nordström. Published by Steidl & Partners, 2013.

It's the photographs that give this exhibition and book their lasting power. If the pictures were not excellent, this new edition would not have been made. Many of the images are reproduced close to the print size exhibited. The excellent reproduction brings out the differences in each photographer's printing techniques. Henry Wessel’s light filled houses contrast well against the contrasty formalism of Lewis Baltz. I keep going back to Nicholas Nixon's work because of his ability to render the differences in the various architectural styles of Boston. Frank Gohlke's work is the most varied because of the wide variety of locations he photographed in; it was the least cohesive, but in some way the most interesting to study. Stephen Shore's color work stands out not because it is the only work in color, but because he tended to favor the older areas. He was not looking at the newly built subdivisions, but the smaller out of the away areas that have been around. It is as though he is saying "This is what is here, why do we need new?" His work is less about the new manifest destiny of the suburban America. Shore's pictures, along with those of the Bechers, are the only ones to feature the Canadian landscape. The larger pictures in this Steidl edition give the reader a chance to enjoy and rediscover photographers and photographs in a way that wasn’t readily possible before. Lewis Baltz's pictures keep drawing me back in a way that did not happen with the first edition.

New Topographics, by Britt Salvesen, Alison Nordström. Published by Steidl & Partners, 2013.

Alison Nordström's essay sheds light on the importance of Rochester not just as producer of raw photographic materials, but also as a producer of photographers, curators and educators. Nordström deftly takes the reader through the cultural and curatorial references of new topographics since 1975. This essay, focusing more on the impact of the exhibition is a good contrast to Salvesen's, which focuses on the ideas and issues surrounding the formation of the show. Both essays help to bring context to a show that a generation has only heard of or seen in a small book. The greater understanding I was looking for in the first edition is found here.
 
New Topographics, by Britt Salvesen, Alison Nordström. Published by Steidl & Partners, 2013.
This new edition of New Topographics has a number of positives going for it. The two negatives I can think of is that I wish all of the photographs were printed at a larger size. That would have cost more and required more pages, but if this is such a ground-breaking endeavor, why not pull all of the stops out. Without all of the images, it could be read as an expanded edit of the first show. Including the original essay by William Jenkins would have been a good addition, too. This book is a curatorial take on a past exhibit, a take worth spending time with. This is as close as you will be able to get to the exhibition without a time machine.—TOM LEININGER

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TOM LEININGER is a photographer and educator based in North Texas. More of his work can be found on his website.

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