Depth of Field, volume 7, no. 1 (December 2015)Gisela Parak: From ‘Topographic’ to ‘Environmental’ – A Look into the Past and the Presence of the New Topographics Movement

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Similarities and Differences between the French and Dutch Landscape Perception on the one hand and the New Topographics on the other hand

In an age of globally blossoming environmental awareness, the resonance of the pressing topic can also be found in photography. In the early 1980s, the French Government also felt encouraged to commission a similar venture because of the American state-sponsored photography programs and the New Topographics exhibition.[24] In 1983 the planning office DATAR (La Délégation Interministérielle à l’Aménagement du Territoire et à l’Attractivité Régionale) launched the Mission Photographique de la DATAR, which during its runtime of six years commissioned 29 photographers with producing artistic perceptions of the landscape and the structural transformation of rural France. One reason for the granting of the state commission is the thought about historic preservation and the documentation of cultural assets, having the same purpose as the Mission Héliographique already had in 1851. In contrast to a strictly topographical survey, as William Jenkins’ conceptual framework had provided for – and the adoption of a collective movement with a shared uniform style – the artistic expression and artistic interpretation of the landscape was at the forefront of the Mission Photographique de la DATAR from the very beginning. The commissioned photographers thus display a style that was very much their own and was not identical with the catchword of the ‘topographic’. Raymond Depardon’s series La Ferme du Garet, Dans la Plaine de Mâcon, which he later continued in his series La France, shows photographs of the disappearing rural France in the tradition of the Picturesque, but also caustic superimpositions of old and new in the views of towns. The photographer Jean-Louis Garnell, who was still very young at the time of the commission, translated the stylistics of the New Topographics into the French context. With his very successful visual compositions and pithy comments, his series Chantiers, Paysages en Transformation opens a dialogue with American landscape photography. Garnell creates diptychs to point out contrasting conditions of specific sites, encouraging the viewer to think about the concept of contemporary landscapes. (figs. 11 and 12) In the photographic series Tableaux (1978-82) by the painter Jean-Marc Bustamante, the compositional criteria of painting are of central importance. His landscape impressions, presented as large-format tableaux, reflect on transitions and forgotten places of urban peripheries. However, Bustamante’s artwork, that was not commissioned by any governmental agency, is closer to the non-agitated, neutralizing compositions of the New Topographics than many a photograph of the Mission Photographique de la DATAR.


Fig. 11 Jean-Louis Garnell, Paysages 21, 1986. © Jean-Louis Garnell /ADAGP / VG Bild-Kunst Bonn 2015


Fig. 12 Jean-Louis Garnell, Paysages 25, 1986. © Jean-Louis Garnell /ADAGP / VG Bild-Kunst Bonn 2015

Dutch landscape photography looks back on its very own tradition of painterly representation of nature and discovered the theme of environmental protection in the 1980s. Curator of photography Frits Gierstberg (Nederlands Fotomuseum, Rotterdam) attributes the decisive influence on the development of a generation of younger Dutch photographers like Cary Markerink, Theo Baart, and Jannes Linders to the New Topographics.[25] But the exhibition New Topographics, which after its start in Rochester was shown in some European countries in a reduced form, was not shown in the Netherlands until 2011. Not only the main subject Wasteland,[26] which was thematically realized within the framework of the Third Photography Biennale in Rotterdam in 1992, but also a number of state commissions helped to promote the further developments and refinement of environmentally related photographic approaches.[27] In the Dutch conception of nature the understanding of a ‘malleable land’ is characteristic, i.e. the land is understood as being malleable, can and may be reshaped, adopted and reworked by humans according to their needs.[28] It may be because of this concept that the Dutch photographic landscape depictions are characterized by a subtle irony and illustrate an uninhibited perception of landscape. There is no sign of a comprehensive criticism of civilization, no fear of the end of humanity, as is latently present in the depressing landscape images of German origin. Instead, you can recognize something like delight in the view of the photographers regarding the hybrid forms of cultured nature and contemporary ambiguities. Hans Aarsman’s Hollandse Taferelen (Dutch scenes, 1989) describes the state of the country and at the same time shows the comic – sometimes even tragicomic – aspects of these human superstructures in a masterly way. His photographs create the impression of a theatrical landscape in which even the cows adjust to the aesthetic guidelines of the humans in a perfect dramatic composition. This sophisticated dealing with the artificial forms of nature can be found in numerous works of Dutch photographers and video artists.[29] In contrast, the individual projects of Theo Baart look almost classically ‘topographic’, like his series Bouwlust, The Urbanization of a Polder (published in 1999), which records in detail how the formally rural countryside of the Amsterdam Schiphol Airport area has changed over the last decades. Where once ‘old’ farmhouses stood, ultramodern functional apartments and houses are spreading now. One seminal contradiction remains: these new urban districts have not dissolved the original landscape, as the polder land was artificial from its very beginning as reclaimed land. The issue of chemically contaminated places whose idyllic impression is deceptive has, on the other hand, been brought to the attention of the public by Wout Berger’s photobook Poisoned Landscape (published in 1992), analogous to his American colleague, Richard Misrach.