Monday, April 13, 2009

new(er) topographics

The most intriguing thing that I read about this week that kept on popping up in several of the articles was the idea of memory and how photographers - specifically landscape photographers are obsessed with remembering - a certain time and a certain place. The article that made me jump on this idea first is the one that always does something to me every time I read it; "Truth and Landscape" from Beauty In Photography by Robert Adams.

On page 15 of the article in the second paragraph, Adams writes about the act of photographing landscapes...

"Most photographers are people of intense enthusiasms whose work involves many choices - to brake the car, grab the yellow instead of the green filter, wait out the cloud, and, at the second everything looks inexplicably right, to release the shutter. Behind these decisions stands the photographer's individual framework of recollections and meditations about the way he perceived that place or places like it before."

Every time I read this paragraph I am immediately transported to a place where I photographed, to a moment where I made a decision. Adams is writing a lot about power and control and beauty but what concerns me most when I'm wherever I am photographing is the loss of control of all of these things. It's a strange feeling.

Timber salvage on ridge at eastern limit of blast zone. Clearwater Creek Valley, ten miles northeast of Mount St. Helens, Washington, 1983, Frank Gohlke

In the article "A Figure and a Landscape" by Ben Lifson about Frank Gohlke, Lifson writes about how Gohlke, unlike almost all photographers of his time, can still see the sublime in landscape. I think this is kind of true. Gohlke's images definitely carry an element of the sublime (see above image). But I don't think Lifson is giving the other New Topographers as much credit as they deserve for still tweaking out a little sublime.

Outdoor Theater, Colorado Springs, 1968, Robert Adams

What is always brought up with Adams is his critique of the advancing suburbs of Denver and his disappointment for the behavior of people toward nature. I won't deny that critique. But what I think is important today about taking landscape photos is vastly different from why it was important to take landscape photos in Denver in the late 60s and early 70s.

Since we already have this critique, when I make a picture like this, it is not to simply mimic Robert Adams.

The Front Range and Boulder, 2008, Me

To deny the part of this picture about the houses creeping through the plains might be naive of me but I think landscape photographers of late have had something else on their mind; It's history, memory, form, and something more enigmatic.

Buffalo County, SD, Justin Newhall

I'm really attracted to form. Man-made landscapes that use form to their advantage and that are built suitable to their surroundings are ok by me. I don't feel like they are intrusive or rape the land somehow of it's pristine nature. I believe there is a point where development can only go so far and that over development is totally problematic and systemic to America, especially the West. However, I think new photographers (me and Newhall at least) want to tweak something else out from the landscapes.

Interstate 84, Hood County, OR, Justin Newhall

I think what's important to me when I'm photographing - is remembering the sublime. Remembering those moments in those places where I didn't exactly know if I wanted to photograph but then I decided to make a picture about being in that place. If it's a good picture, the formal elements will be right, but there will also be some other element, an element of chance or risk that I took that ultimately pays off.

I keep thinking about that; how memories deeply effect photographers. How experiences like driving, back and forth between St. Louis and Janesville, WI four times a year for the first 20 years of my life or having a digging hole in my backyard that mimicked the topography of Missouri in miniature scale - these things are still in my photographs even though most of the time the reason I'm inclined to take a photo at a certain place has to do with the subject of the project I'm working on, I still seem to take some element from my past and put it in the picture. This is what I think Robert Adams meant when he said "Making photographs has to be, then, a personal matter; when it is not, the results are not persuasive. "

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