After a fierce late-winter rain drenched Tucson recently, I happened to be driving north over the Palo Verde overpass. I got a front-seat view of the whole Catalina range and of the valley spread out below.
A brilliant sun had chased away the rain, and the snow on the mountains gleamed in the light. Great cumulus clouds—orange, blue, gray—floated over the ridgeline. But the light also foregrounded all that's ugliest in the city below. The sun caught the shiny asphalt of the wet streets and the curve of the highway. Power lines glistened; wet telephone poles stood in stark silhouette. Every squat strip mall cast a beige glow.
It was a beautiful afternoon by any standard, but most people appreciating the unexpected loveliness would have kept their eyes on the sky. If any of the New Topographics photographers had been in the vicinity, though, they would have trained their lenses on the biggest and ugliest part of the view: the manmade city and its cavalcade of fast-food joints, gas stations, parking lots, streetlights and tangles of wire.
Way back in 1975, the New Topographics photographers shocked the beauty-seeking public with their bad-boy exhibition (only one bad girl was in the group) at the influential George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y. All 10 artists considered themselves landscape photographers, but they took the radical stance that they should photograph the landscape as it really is—human-made ugliness and all—and not the landscape as we wish it were.
The Center for Creative Photography is reprising the exhibition 35 years later, while gauging its importance to the history of photography. Not all of the original photographs are on view, but there are plenty—more than 100—and each of the 10 photogs is represented.
Taking a look at their work—Joe Deal's dispiriting new subdivisions flung out on the raw land outside Albuquerque, Bernd and Hilla Becher's coal towers rotting in the hills of upstate Pennsylvania, Lewis Baltz's grim warehouses and office parks on the edge of Los Angeles sprawl—you can understand the reaction of the public.
In the new catalog, Britt Salvesen, the former CCP director who co-organized this new show before moving on to her new job at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, includes the transcript of a conversation taped in 1975. "I just don't like this at all," a young woman declares. "... I don't like them. They're dull and flat. There's no people, no involvement, nothing."
It's true that there are few, if any, people in these black-and-white works. (Only Stephen Shore worked in color.) But the human imprint is everywhere.
In his untitled 1974 Albuquerque photos, Deal stood high on a hill and looked downward at a desert valley newly desecrated by subdivisions. You can still see the doomed desert scrub in its death throes alongside scraped building pads and spanking new ribbons of asphalt. The houses that are already built look, well, stupid; they're crammed against each other in thoughtless ways, tiny mediocre invaders in a once-grand landscape.
Frank Gohlke, now a UA photography professor, also took on Albuquerque in 1974, when the West was growing like crazy. His "Irrigation Canal, Albuquerque, New Mexico," shows even less of nature than Deal's pictures do. It's got a big piece of grand Western sky, to be sure, but it's reflected in the putrid water idling in the ditch below. Alongside the water, the two walls of the ditch are a double concrete scar.
Quite a few of the photogs worked out West, where big slabs o' concrete were shooting out across the raw land in the '70s. Baltz made a whole series, New Industrial Parks, in Southern California. Contemporary industrial buildings are so ugly that they hurt your eyes—all prefab materials, nothing but functional—and Baltz easily captures their assault on beauty.
He pictured "South Corner, Riccar America Company, 3184 Pullman, Costa Mesa" as a monumental monstrosity, placing the tall corner of the building front and center, and the sides slanting down steeply on the diagonal.
John Schott photographed an older and more charming West in his Route 66 Motels series. With their undulating faux-adobe walls, neon saguaro signs and "Indian" décor, these funny motor courts from the 1930s at least have some individuality. In one untitled print, an unseen owner has painted some fiery Southwestern motifs aside a cabin door. Lawn chairs set out front and a spiffy Fairlane in the drive suggest a particular human presence, something lost in the later industrial parks and über-developments.
The only color photog in the bunch, Shore also looked at (eccentric) sites—telephone poles in a monochrome poor-as-dirt town in Texas; an 18th century rowhouse in Easton, Penn, with the greenery of the Delaware River softly glowing in the distance. The wife-and-husband Becher team also worked in Pennsylvania, recording the mine detritus that even today still litters the hillsides in the state's coal country.
That these photographs don't particularly shock us today speaks to how successful the New Topographics movement was. Some earlier photographers had tried some of the same things—Walker Evans, for one, had gone around photographing vernacular buildings decades before (he even worked in Easton)—but the forthrightness the New Tops forced onto the public has persisted. People might not like the ugliness they chronicle, but they're less likely to denounce the effort.
Interestingly, the New Topographics first exhibited as a group the same year that the Center for Creative Photography was founded, in 1975. The center was, in part, conceived as an homage to Ansel Adams, who donated his entire archive to the fledgling enterprise. Both sides were making the then-controversial assertion that photography was an art form, but the New Topographics were taking it in a direction that the center's founding saint would have abhorred.
Adams went to great lengths to avoid, and even hide, human incursions and the land; he depicted the West as pristine, sublime, untouched. His pictures could not be further removed than, say, Henry Wessel's 1973 "Tucson."
On view in this show, Wessel's "Tucson" is mostly about an apartment complex; its roof overhangs and bricks and balconies take up most of the foreground. The landscape here is tamed—check out that 1970s lawn and those fat non-native shrubs. The Wild West loved by Adams is almost impossible to see. But if you squint and peer, you can dimly make out America's purple mountains' majesty.
In the blurry distance, beyond the rooftops, there are the Catalinas, and there's Finger Rock, the same peaks I saw on my post-downpour drive. But in this picture, the city has overtaken them. They're tiny and faint—almost, but not quite, obliterated by what man has made.