Memorializing banality, in many shades

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No one disputes that the 1975 exhibition “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape” was a landmark show. Attendance at the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., wasn’t huge, and the presentation didn’t introduce any unknown talent.

But the show put a name to a phenomenon — the proliferation of straight, seemingly uninflected photography of the banal, built environment — and that name stuck. What remains cause for discussion is what exactly ‘New Topographics’ meant, and why the term and its attendant attributes have had such an enduring influence.

A restaging of the exhibition at the L.A. County Museum of Art raises those persistent issues and provides a framework for their debate. More than 100 of the 168 photographs in the original show have been reassembled, about 10 each by Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore and Henry Wessel Jr.

“What I remember most clearly from the original show,” Gohlke recalled, “was that almost nobody liked it. I think it wouldn’t be too strong to say that it was a vigorously hated show. Some people found it unutterably boring. Some people couldn’t believe we were serious, taking pictures of this stuff. And actually, that attitude is still very alive and well.”


For Leah Ollman’s Sunday Arts & Books story on the show, click here.