Friday, 8 March 2013

Exercise 4 - research and analyse

This black and white image shows a newly constructed housing development. The caption names this place as, "Pikes Peak Park" in Colorado Springs. The image is dated 1970 and is by the photographer Robert Adams. The development looks new because there are expanses of bare earth where there should be grass and landscaping. The concrete drive stands in contrast to the soil and looks particularly "fresh" with its hard edges. The bottom half of the image is composed of similar box-like houses as they gently slope up a hillside and continue out of the edge of the frame - an indication that there may be many more similar constructions in this uniform development. It is a sunny day and the light is strong as it strikes on the sides of the houses leaving others in shadow. The sky is full of brightly lit clouds and takes up almost half the image. A line of utility poles cross the horizon. The landscape feels empty. In fact, there is a solitary child playing in the mid foreground, very small in the frame, with a toy waggon of some sort. The reproduction on my screen is not that large so it is difficult to make out. The child is playing in the road, at the entrance to the foreground house, and this solitude adds to the sense of isolation. There is not a single other person about and the only additional sign of human habitation is a truck parked on a driveway of a house in the middle distance.

New Topographics is part of the modern landscape genre - defined by an influential exhibition called, New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape in 1975 at the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, New York. The exhibition was curated by William Jenkins and drew a small number of like minded photographers such as Adams, Bernd and Hilla Becher and Stephen Shore, (Cowlard, 2010). The exhibition has grown in stature over the years and the catalogue is now an expensive collectors item. "Pikes Peak Park, Colorado Springs, Colorado 1970," is a gelatin silver print (15.2 x 14.8,) and is now held by MOMA, New York, (MOMA, 2013).

The style of New Topographics has been defined as having "no style".  Aesthetic values have been stripped from the image in an attempt to record just the detail of what is before the photographer. It has also been stated that the New Topographics artists were influenced by the artist/photographer, Ed Ruscha and his work "Twenty Six Gasoline Stations," (Ruscha, 1962.) Ruscha's photographic style has been characterised by the BBC series The Genius of Photography as,

Left to its own devices the camera can be nothing more than a slack-jawed dumb recorder of whatever is put in front of it - which is exactly what Ed Ruscha allowed it to be in a series of seminal books he produced in the 1960s, milestones in the history of photography and pop art. (BBC, 2007)

I would say that when a cursory glance is cast over this type of image it often appears that little thought has gone into making it. But it is the very nature of the image and its mundane subject matter that draws the viewer in to examine further - to try and work out what it is that drew the photographer to make it. On closer inspection the image can be unpicked. From a compositional perspective we can see that the facing sides of the houses are evenly lit by the sun and range from a mid to very bright tones. The photographer either planned and waited for the sun to strike at this angle or happened to be in the right place at the right time and took advantage of the composition before him. Without the inclusion of bright light, creating a succession of uniform shapes receding up the slope, this image would look very flat. The child in mid foreground is also well placed in the composition - whether this is fortuitous or prompted is unknown. The image has an even focus, indicating a small aperture has been selected for a large depth of field, and is well exposed.

What is the intent of the photographer? To show how urbanisation destroys the natural landscape? To show ugly things in a beautiful place? How these environments foster isolation and loneliness - and that through the gradual erosion of cultural values we destroy not only the landscape but ourselves? Adams is known for taking an interest in his environment and his work usually depicts the urban sprawl of tract housing and accompanying infrastructure that begins to overtake the unspoilt landscape of California and Oregon in 1960 & 70s. The images also usually infer a sense of isolation and loneliness. Adams has also said that underpinning all his work is an appreciation of light, (Getty Museum, 2013).

By the above criteria, is "Pikes Peak Park, Colorado Springs, Colorado 1970," a success? I would say on the whole that it is. It is obviously part of a wider sequence. As a stand-alone image it is not an iconic one. Not in the way that Adam's, "Colorado Springs, Colorado 1968," of a woman in silhouette through a window of a suburban home is regarded, (Adams, 1968). From the perspective of New Topographics, though, it more than fulfils the criteria of recording the detail - although I would dispute the claims made in the early days of New Topographics - that the genre was an attempt to brush aside aesthetic and humanistic concerns in favour of objectivity. The sense of isolation created by including solitary human figures in the compositions of many of the works (including this one) show that there is a clear agenda at work here.

Adams also talks about his love of light and how that affects the way he works. It is hard to analyse the image in this respect without seeing the original print. The online versions are generally small compared to the (approx) 15 x 14 original. I know that seeing the original work is crucial whenever a proper assessment is required. Many times I have wondered why a particular photograph is held in such high esteem - only to have my eyes opened when seeing the usually much larger work in real life am I able to appreciate it.

Reference list:

Adams, R (1968) [online] Available from: [Accessed 8th February 20130].

BBC. (2007) [online] Available from: [Accessed 8th February 2013].

Cowlard, D. (2010) [online] Available from: [Accessed 5th February 2013].

Getty, J.P. Museum (2013) [online] Available from: [Accessed 8th February 2013].

MOMA. (2013) [online] Available from: [Accessed 5th February 2013].

Ruscha, E. (1962) Twenty Six Gasoline Stations. 1st edition. Alhambra, USA: Cunningham Press.

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