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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Collection captures ‘man-altered’ landscapes

    When Bill Jenkins selected 10 young photographers to capture the “”man-altered landscape”” of 1975, he wanted each and every picture to question the notion of style. As the original curator of the influential “”New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape,”” it fell to Jenkins to sum up the intent of the show. He maintains now what he said then: “”The pictures were stripped of any artistic frills and reduced to an essentially topographic state, conveying substantial amounts of visual information but eschewing entirely the aspects of beauty, emotion and opinion.””

    With this no-frills agenda in mind, eight American men and one German couple produced a slew of black-and-white landscape images, which were then framed in silver and presented in rows on sleek grey, expansive walls.

    Joe Deal and Frank Gohlke were among the American artists whose contributions were instrumental in forming the historic show. Both men, along with Jenkins and current curator Britt Salvesen, were slated to speak at the panel following the show’s re-opening at the Center for Creative Photography on Friday. Deal was unable to attend due to illness, but Gohlke’s lively presence and Jenkins’ sincere enthusiasm shed light on the dense exhibit.

    “”When I first knew him as a photographer he was Joseph M. Deal,”” said Jenkins of Deal’s influence on the project. Then he came to Jenkins one day and the project wasn’t “”Recent Topographics,”” it was “”New Topographics,”” and he was just Joe Deal.

    The theme of brevity pervades the exhibit now as much as ever. According to Gohlke, he, along with the rest of the contributors, “”was interested in getting things done with a minimum of fuss.””

    “”Art that makes a point of understating everything has a hard time getting noticed,”” Gohlke added. “”I would get questions like ‘Why are your photographs so dull?'””

    From a perspective of content, such a question might be valid. As Jenkins said, “”These pictures are largely of buildings because that’s what’s out there — you know, unless you want to go to Alaska — I don’t want to go to Alaska.”” But from an artistic perspective, the photos contain much more than their inanimate subjects.

    Jenkins draws a distinction, though, between documenting buildings and capturing surroundings.

    “”Joe (Deal) was the one who said, ‘It’s not architecture, it’s landscape,'”” he said. “”It turned out to be about landscape. And it still is, I’ve noticed.””

    Through all the questions of content, there is a cohesive element that, though distinctive, can elude audiences, curators and artists alike. Perhaps it is an element that emerges from the idea that, as Gohlke phrased it, “”something as supposedly mechanical as a photograph bears the imprint of a particular mind.””

    Though it’s something the curator and artists aimed to minimize, this imprint might be what holds the expansive show so tightly together. Robert Adams, another of the American artists, is responsible for some of the most striking images present in the exhibit. Gohlke mentioned Adams’ uniqueness in an effort to convey this elusive property, saying, “”There is this light (in Adams’ photographs) that makes you think about tract houses in a way tract houses wouldn’t normally make you think.””

    This phenomenon of light as mood and catalyst for contemplation pervades the exhibit. Henry Wessel Jr.’s “”Hollywood”” (1972), is nearly “”I-Spy””-like in its intricacies, though its edges contain little but shadows and clouds.  With this, and nearly every other piece, the discrepancy between natural landscapes and oft-imperfect human constructions comes to light.

    In the same vein, Lewis Baltz’s heavily edge-influenced prints employ a grid presentation, affixed to the wall in window-pane fashion. Taking direction from curbs, roadsides and vanilla ‘70s architecture, prints like “”West Wall, Pacific Telephone, 2911 South Daimler, Santa Ana”” (1974), keep the theme of stylelessness and reflect exactly what Baltz said of the buildings he captured: “”You don’t know whether they’re manufacturing pantyhose or megadeath.””

    But, arguably, best of all is Adams. His “”Tract House, Westminster, Colorado”” (1974), is an image simultaneously fraught with desolation and crispness. Relying on the repetition of triangles to pull the viewer in and bounce the eye through the intricacies of the image, along with an expert command of exposure and contrast to create richness even in black and white, the print has expert technical merit.

    As Jenkins said, “”Craft then was really a given … if you couldn’t make a good print, you had no business taking photographs.””

    There’s no denying, however, that “”New Topographics”” contains more than what Salvesen referred to as the epitome of “”beautiful gelatin prints.””

    “”So much of art is calculated,”” Gohlke said. “”Here there’s the notion that something could command your attention and hold it.””

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