I’ve been reading this week about the New Topographics movement and also looking at the work of several photographers including Robert Adams, Todd Hido, Stephen Shore and Jeff Brouws – all in connection with my research project, Oxford at Night.
“New Topographics” shook up landscape photography and put some superb photographers on the map, but at first I found it odd that I should be so interested in an exhibition held in 1975-6 in Rochester NY called New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape.
Then I realised what was drawing me. The traditional image of Oxford is like those pristine American landscapes of old that “New Topographics” was reacting against: beauty, emotion, form among golden-hued college quadrangles, dreaming spires, languid punting on the river and chaps in gowns or boating jackets.
Problem is, these days that’s baloney. Everything about our world has changed. Oxford is a huge sprawling conurbation with the same social problems, some severe, as anywhere else. And with that our aesthetics have changed too.
So my New Topographics, if you like, will be photographing what Oxford is today, not what the tourist brochures or fond imaginings suggest. In this I’ve been helped by the practice of Jeff Brouws who has spoken of a “franchised landscape” of insatiable consumerism and of the “encouragement of corporate culture into the contemporary landscape”.
As Neoliberalism tightens its grip on our societies, I would extend the Franchised Landscape into the Owned Landscape. It’s particularly obvious after dark. Almost every part of the inner city is claimed, from corner stores to office blocks and often by a corporation whose ownership is emblazoned via signs, brandings, posters and every variety of lurid neon coloration. While a natural landscape might envelop us and encourage us to feel a part of it, the Owned Landscape excludes us. We are shut out as if from a corporate Eden. Often we can only approach the Owned Landscape through plate glass, barred gates, moats and security guards. While such landscapes can have their own moments of beauty the cumulative effect is to render the onlooker a powerless bystander. You may be allowed in, but only under controlled conditions and, usually, only if you are prepared pay what the owner demands. No credit card? No Eden.
Below the references are some research project images I made earlier in the week.
Adams, R. (1986). Los Angeles spring. New York: Aperture
Brouws, J. 2019. Jeff Brouws. [Online] Available at http://www.jeffbrouws.com/. [Accessed 17 October 2019].
Campany, D. and Hido, T. (2016). Intimate distance: twenty-five years of photographs, a chronological album. New York: Aperture
Nottsartshistory. 2014. And now it’s dark: the American dream and suburban cultural landscapes in Jeff Brouws’ photography. [Online]. Available at https://nottsarthistory.wordpress.com/2014/10/27/and-now-its-dark-the-american-dream-and-suburban-cultural-landscapes-in-jeff-brouws-photography/. [Accessed 17 October 2019].
Shore, S. 2019. Stephen Shore. [Online] Available at http://stephenshore.net/. [Accessed 17 October 2019].
Wikipedia. 2019. New topographics. [Online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Topographics. [Accessed 17 October 2019].