The New Topographics + Lewis Baltz: The New Industrial Parks near Irvine, California

After our theory lecturer recommended reading about a movement called The New Topographics I went to the library and looked through the exhibition book. In looking through the work from this movement I was instantly inspired by the unique styles the 8 photographers adopted to record the urban landscape. 

The New Topographics was a term coined by William Jenkins in 1975 and was used to refer to a group of American photographers whose photographs had a similar banal aesthetic. In that the images were similarly formal, mostly black and white prints of urban landscapes. The movement rejected the idealised nature of landscape photography and shared a style of approaching their subject matter in a detached way. Reflecting the use of minimalist shapes and structures being used in contemporary art practice at that time. 

The New Topographics was initially formed through an exhibition of that same name which was curated by William Jenkins at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York in 1975. The photographers in the exhibition were 8 then young American photographers; Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore and Henry Wessel Jr. German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher were also invited as their photographs of German industrial structures shared a same kind of aesthetic to the other American photographers in the exhibition. 

What really intrigues me about the work in this movement is how detached the photographers seems from their subject matter. They have presented to us buildings in uniform ways that presents them as they are. In comparison to Eggleston for example who was very experimental in composing his subject matter to play with colour. The photographs are so potent I feel because they show the mundane for it what it is and do not romanticise it for the sake of aesthetics. 

The work of The New Topographics was the stimulus for a significant shift in attitudes towards landscape as a subject matter and cultural preoccupation. The level of objectivity is really intriguing and leaves the images open to interpretation what you think of the structures rather than the photographer and what they think of them. Although some of the work like Lewis Baltz's is highly conceptual and reflects his own ideas about the urban landscape. However as the subject matter isn't presented to look more ugly or beautiful it is really left to your own interpretation.


After looking at the New Topographics I decided to look more closely at Lewis Baltz's work as his photographs were some of my favourites in The New Topographics book. Baltzs' work stood out to visually and also I found the conceptual element of his work fascinating. One particularly captivating series of images I found of his is that in a photo book titled 'The New Industrial Parks Near Irvine, California'.

Growing up in California Baltz had witnessed in person the swift urbanisation that spread across the countryside during the postwar years. He described that it was like "A new world was being born... this new homogenised American environment that was marching across the land. And it seemed no one wanted to confront this; it was invisible." What he is referring to are the way these modern building developments all seem to be the same wherever you go, creating a uniform urban landscape over the once unique beauties of the natural environment. His subject matter in his black and white photographs includes concrete walls, garages, warehouses and fire escapes. All of which in his photographs contain an absence of human presence.

Baltz's photographs with their non existent romanticism and austere nature, possess a cold and geometric beauty to them. In a video called Contacts Volume 2, Baltz describes that he intends for his work to look as if anyone could do it. He goes on to share this disinterest in aesthetics and how he would rather leave that kind of thing to "someone more talented". Conceptual photography is about illustrating an idea/mental concept through photographic imagery. This lack of interest in aesthetics expressed by Baltz is simply because his images are purely conceptual and intended for communication of an idea rather than trying to capture something's aesthetic value.

Above is one of my favourite images by Lewis Baltz. It contains a wall with these divided squares which appear to be windows of some kind. This style of having super sharp, high contrast black and white images is a common and recognizable aesthetic of Baltzs' work. Which I think is powerful in communicating how he feels about this subject matter, that it is detached and invasive on our environment. 

In terms of this particular photograph I think the use of pattern in these squares is effective in communicating how rapid and repetitive suburban development is to Baltz. That it all looks the same and can be replicated so quickly without any kind of empathy or sensitivity towards what it is being built on. The framing feels very close up and rather than just moving the frame up and capturing this pattern Baltz has also included this rubbish on the ground underneath. Which I think really sums up his thoughts on this issue he is referring to in his work in terms of how we are leaving very negative marks on our environment. 

The use of white negative space suggests this feeling of emptiness Baltz may be commenting on in these developments. That these buildings all feel similar without giving any real significance and value to our lives.  

Above is another photograph of Baltzs' that I really like. The use of the high contrast of these thin black trees against this white negative space of the warehouse, gives a really haunting and lifeless feeling to this image despite being simply a photograph of a warehouse, with parking spaces marked outside. His work interests me like the other photographers I have looked at so far because his subject matter is so ordinary. It's really fascinating to me the way photographers like Baltz capture the mundane in their photographs and how they use aesthetics and curation to communicate the meanings and ideas they attach to their work. 

Looking at Baltz's work has inspired me to photograph building exteriors and also use black and white and postproduction to look more closely at form, light and space in my images. 

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