The Brand New Topographics
My first degree level project was entitled “The Brand New Topographics” and was used to introduce me into the ‘university’ style of working.
We were given a pack of four pages that included 16 quotes by famous photographers and a map of five marked places, in the city of Coventry, where we had to take our photographs.
My first task was to answer the question “Who were the ‘New Topographics’ and what did they do?”
The answer? The exhibition entitled “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape” was shown at the International Museum of Photography and was organised by William Jenkins in January 1975. It included work of American photographers Henry Wessel Jr., John Schott, Stephen Shore, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, Robert Adams, Joe Deal, Lewis Baltz, and the two german photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher. 30 years after the exhibitions original opening, the “New Topographics” is still incredibly successful in portraying western landscape photography and has had many effects on photography in different cultures.
I then researched the work of the 16 photographers as a secondary influence (the quotations being the first) before I set off into the city of Coventry.
Whilst travelling around the city, looking for inspiration, I kept a clear, visual slide show of images that were taken by the photographers within my mind. I had also read each quote several times but kept the sheet handy just in case.
The following 10 photographs show my response to some of the quotes and also show influence of my research.
(Underneath each photo is the specific quote and a brief reflective comment.)
“The complete disregard for the camera’s prescence indicates its complete saturation in their lives. The subject neither notices nor seems to care that someone has been invited into their private moment” – Nan Goldin
This photograph was taken on Alma Street in Coventry. As a viewer, I can easily see that this photograph responds to the chosen quote by portraying an oriental family going about their daily lives. As a photographer, I feel that the angle of which this photograph was taken actually enhances the intimacy that is being radiated from the subject matter. However, I would have liked to have captured this same image but with the little girl facing the camera as I feel that this would create a more complex emotional reaction from the viewer.
“I hate nothing more than sugary photographs with tricks, poses and effects. So allow me to be honest and tell the truth about our age and it’s people” – August Sander
This image was captured whilst walking down Fairfax Street. When the viewer looks at this photograph and associates it with this particular quote, they feel that there is a slight irony shown through the first part of the quote as this image has clearly been edited. However, when the viewer reads the second part of the quote, they feel that this image has been cleverly constructed to show the physical meaning of the quote rather than the metaphorical.
“Trust that little voice in your head that says ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if…’ and then do it.” – Duane Michals
This photograph was also taken on Alma Street, against a painted garage door. I saw this particular backdrop and specifically recalled one of the 16 photographers photographing portraits against backgrounds that weren’t too dissimilar to this. I decided that I would experiment with this and so had a volunteer stand in front of this door. I wanted to capture the serious, ‘natural’ look on his face to enhance the mood and atmosphere that this photograph elicits. I personally feel that this particular photograph would suit being in a collection of about five images, all with different people standing in front of the same background.
“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” – Robert Capa
This photograph was taken in an alleyway off of Sky Blue Way. When looking at this image, the viewer can clearly see a connection with the selected quote, not only showing the physical meaning of the quote, but also the metaphorical. What I mean by this, is that the viewer feels that this is a very intimate action which is often, normally, only seen by closer acquaintances. The editing of this photograph also show the influence of Martin Parr’s work due to the bright colour saturation. I think that this photograph could be improved if the subject within the photo was actually staring down the camera. This would give the viewer an awkward feeling so would enable them to have a greater emotional response.
“I would say to any artist: ‘Don’t be repressed in your work, dare to experiment, consider any urge, if in a new direction, all the better” – Edward Weston
This photograph was taken in Coventry’s Cathedral. The viewer cannot really relate the image to the quote by Edward Weston unless they have seen my previous work. However, this, for me, is an experiment in the way that this photograph is very secretive and shows a completely different perspective in which I normally shoot. I feel that this photograph gives the viewer a great emotional attachment as they feel a wide range of emotions. I feel that this photograph could have been improved if the subjects within the image where actually closer to the camera.
“I wasn’t imposing my presence on anyone… Which is very important for a would-be journalist. I stayed back. Always let people be themselves” – Elliott Erwitt
This photograph was taken near Fairfax Street. The viewer can easily see that this photograph is linked to the specific quotation by Elliot Erwitt. This can be seen through the fact that I have taken a relatively close photograph of a mother and her son, without their actions or facial expressions being distracted by the camera. I did take a similar photo where the mother and son were in focus and the railings were blurred but this didn’t achieve the same mysterious effect as this photo.
“Let the subject generate its own photographs. Become a camera.” – Minor White
This photograph was also, obviously, taken on Fairfax Street. This image was taken after I re-read some of the 16 quotes and re-visited this particular one. For this image, I did as it said in the quote and tried to become a camera. For this, all I did was took different photos without thinking about composition or technique and let the subjects within the image do the work for me. I feel that this image isn’t one of my strongest, but that there is an indescribable feeling about this image that grabs mine and the viewers attention.
“I am not very interested in extraordinary angles. They can be effective on certain occasions, but I do not feel the necessity for them in my own work. Indeed, I feel the simplest approach can often be most effective. A subject placed squarely in the centre of the frame, if attention is not distracted from it by fussy surroundings, has a simple dignity which makes it all the more impressive.” – Bill Brandt
This photograph was also taken off of an alleyway near Sky Blue Way. This photograph clearly relates to the quotation stated by Bill Brandt as the focal point (the door) is found dead centre in the image. This central technique gives inadequate objects a sense of importance which is interpreted by the viewer into a mysterious narrative as to why the photographer has chosen to photograph this common subject.
“You have to follow your nose… To have a mental attitude about what you feel good about and yearn for in a picture. Being able to say ‘I like it,’ or ‘I don’t like it.’ That’s first.” – Jan Groover
This photograph was taken just outside the George Eliot building and relates more to the second half of the quote said by Jan Groover. This experimental photograph enabled me to look back over my images and quickly decide that “I liked” the image. I also chose this quote to relate to this image as it reminded me very much of the abstract still-life photography that Jan Groover is famous for.
“The immortal photographers will be straightforward photographers, those who do not rely on tricks or special techniques” – Philippe Halsman
This photograph was actually taken on a day out in Birmingham. It relates to the quote by Philippe Halsman as I did not edit this photograph AT ALL in post-production. I felt that this original image was naturally aesthetically pleasing and dynamic so made an executive decision not to edit it in any way.
As with all the projects that I will do over this three-year degree, I will complete them by writing some form of critical reflection. Within this reflection, I will highlight how I approached the task, whether I liked it, and anything that I would do differently.
As you can see from the work that I have shown above, I began by looking up the ‘New Topographics’, which was an exhibition about Man-Altered Landscapes. I then read through all of the 16 quotes to enable me to trigger a relationship between them and any visual shots I thought were interesting, whilst on my photo shoot. I then quickly looked at the work that each of these photographers were known for which often varied from landscapes, to still life, to portraits. This research allowed me to broaden what I was able to photograph as it gave me a large range of influence and inspiration. After completing the research, I then went out on my first Brand New Topographics photo shoot around Coventry, where I created my first eight images. The last two images were created on later photo shoots when I decided to revisit this task.
The fact that I decided to revisit this task shows that I really enjoyed it. I liked that I was given aspects to respond to, as it meant that I could show my creativity in a directed manor and was given influence and a form of motivation from the outset. As I found this project creatively stimulating and very pleasing, I have a slight suspicion that I am going to enjoy another 154MC project: “Creating an artifact that is informed by an extra-curricular activity.”
Although I did really enjoy this project and felt that it was really successful, there are some things that I would have changed. The first is the fact that although I did research on each of the photographers, I didn’t actually show it. As there where a lot of photographers to look at, I thought that if I included examples of their work, my work may have been less visible and decrease in importance. The second thing that I would have changed is the fact that I revisited it. Although I revisited it because I enjoyed it, I found that, due to the fact that the research wasn’t fresh in my mind, my later photo shoots were less successful, meaning that I only came away with two effective images.
As already stated, I really enjoyed this project and will almost undoubtedly appreciate the 154MC project: “Creating an artifact that is informed by an extra-curricular activity.” We will see.