New Topographics Mobile Homes, Jefferson County, Colorado, 1973, copyright Robert Adams.
Is there such a thing as contemporary British landscape photography? Looking back over the last 40 years, the question is not as strange as it might seem.
By the 1970s, landscape photography in Britain had moved away from the chocolate-box pastoralism that had come to prominence during the inter-war years, refashioning itself after the highly crafted, spiritualist work of American photographer Minor White.
Drawing on the transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, White’s approach was rooted in a philosophical tradition that had little relevance for the late 20th Century British consciousness.
Even so, his work – along with that of other American photographers such as Harry Callahan, Ansel Adams and Wynn Bullock – was seen as a welcome departure from a moribund European landscape tradition.
By the early 1980s, though, critics were targeting White’s British disciples, condemning their approach as old-fashioned and derivative and calling for a landscape photography underpinned by more contemporary concerns.
Once again, this transformation was outsourced to America, with photographers and critics turning to the radical vision of landscape presented in the 1975 New Topographics exhibition at the George Eastman House.
Acknowledged as the first exhibition of “critical” landscape photography, New Topographics was not primarily about landscape as such – curator William Jenkins intended it as a statement about the documentary style.
The generic spaces of capitalism they shot were universally familiar in a changing world, in which communion with nature was less of a concern than the growing influence of industry and infrastructure on the shaping of the land.
Eugenie Shinkle is a photographer, writer and senior lecturer in photographic theory and criticism at the University of Westminster. She is currently planning a conference on Emerging Landscapes, which reconsiders the idea of landscape by exploring the relationship between space and image. Emerging Landscapes will take place from 25-27 June 2010 and keynote speakers include photographer Gabriele Basilico and cultural geographer Stephen Daniels.
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