Sean O’Hagan’s article concentrates a lot on how much the original exhibition was disliked at the time. What struck me from looking at the work of the photographers mentioned in the article is just how different they were from each other. Nicholas Nixon shows how unusual the landscape is from a viewpoint that most people won’t see. The effect is rather like the Nazca plains in Peru; a design that cannot be fully appreciated by those who constructed it. In contrast Robert Adams forces us to try and find interest in the mundane; a world that anyone could see for themselves but would probably not stop to do so. The cumulative effect of seeing several otherwise ordinary scenes all together is to ask us to appreciate just how not ordinary each is.
Robert Adams’ project ‘The New West’ seems to trace a direct line back to the mining and railroad photographs of Carleton Watkins. The connection is there in the way that Adams shows how modern American society is still expanding into the gaps left from previous expansions. Apart from the different building materials these could almost be from a hundred years ago. In several of the photographs in this particular set he uses quite a high key approach, which seems to emulate the mid-tones approach that Watkins favoured. Like Watkins, Adams shows that the expansion is part of the natural order of things; this otherwise empty space is there to be used.
Nicholas Nixon’s work ‘New Topographics’ shows an organic structure to man-made environments. Buildings seem to grow out of each other and roads diverge as if they were living. This is from a viewpoint that most people will not get to see; it allows us a new way of seeing. By taking these photographs from high above he also gives a feeling of ownership; when we can see the whole world we can be less afraid so the otherwise daunting nature of cities is reduced. This is the opposite effect of earlier work by Bereniece Abbott. Her photographs of New York from the 1930s shows an environment that is dominating human life; we become ‘owned’ by the environment instead.
Stephen Shore’s landscape photography in ‘Uncommon Places’ seems the most mundane of all of the artists mentioned in O’Hagan’s article. Unlike the others mentioned, he uses colour which does much more to ground the images in the modern day. This forces us much more to look at the ordinary, the mundane, and search for points of interest. In a lot of his photographs there are no or very few people, so we only have the environment to look at. People would be a distraction and we would pay much less attention to the scenery if there was actual life present. It does give a sense of abandonment, as if all life had suddenly left. Although these photographs are dated, the cumulative effect is of a complete set taken on a Tuesday afternoon, say just after lunch.
The presentation of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s industrial collections seems to deliberately echo the group works of August Sander. Here are large man-made objects that while ostensibly the same things are all very different. Each would otherwise likely pass unnoticed until we are forced to see how unalike they all are. I can’t decide if the effect is increased or reduced by seeing several sets together. Sets of sets?
Frank Gohlke’s project ‘Grain Elevators’ seems on the face of it to be in the same area as the Bechers’ works but the presentation asks us to look at each one as an individual. Unlike the Bechers he does not try to use identical viewpoints for each one. There is no attempt at comparison here, he is just using them as a jumping-off point to look at the individual strangeness of each. Using grain elevators as a subject was not new even when Gohlke took these photographs . Ralston Crawford used these as a painting subject in the 1930s but whereas he concentrated on the abstract shapes these produced in flat, two-dimensional paintings, Gohlke’s photographs still have a three-dimensional quality. Although he appreciates the shapes these produce (perhaps with a nod to Paul Strand as well), there is enough around the edges to confirm this is reality and these strange objects exist in our world.