All posts in “Frank Gohlke”

New Topographics: Instantly (in)Famous

When viewing New Topographics, you’ll want to lean in and look closely—on close inspection you discover the dead-pan humor as well as the disquiet in seeing the land sliced up and rapidly developed in this group of photography.

This new installation at SAM brings together a group of photographers who became widely known through a 1975 exhibition at the George Eastman House. What made all the work instantly (in)famous was that the artists turned their back on celebrated landscape imagery.

Landscape as wild and tempestuous (think Bierstadt) or picturesque was set aside. Instead, artists such as Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Stephen Shore, and others trained their cameras on new housing developments that turned farmland into suburbia, or looked at the topography of cities.

In addition to the new subject of man-altered landscape, the photographers also created a new aesthetic: Modern photography had become known for stark black and white contrast and dramatic perspectives, while the New Topographics photographers had a decidedly quiet and descriptive approach.

A lone beer bottle here, wires and hookups there, are anything but grand but then the piles of dirt come with glamorous titles such as Prospector Park.

In addition to some of the artists who were featured in the original 1975 show, included are artworks that are related and expand this vision into other directions. Thus you will find Mark Tobey’s early painting, Middle West, in an entirely new context. You will also discover several of the great artist books by Ed Ruscha—whose work was very influential to this new generation. Last not least, you will find several of Howard Kottler’s “souvenir plates” that are adorned with birds-eye views of downtown Seattle. (Watch out for his dead-pan humor.)

While you’re visiting, sit down with photocopies of the original New Topographics catalogue and text as well as Robert Smithson’s groundbreaking and fabulously written essay: “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey.”

The rapid transformation of the urban and suburban areas of Seattle by new development right now provide a new context for the work of these artists. See New Topographics on view through the end of the year.

– Catharina Manchanda, Jon and Mary Shirely Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

Images: Installation view of New Topographics at Seattle Art Museum, 2018, photos: Stephanie Fink
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Object of the Week: Aerial View, Tulsa, Oklahoma

There is something peculiar about the way we attribute the clarity of some photographs to the world itself. I try to reinforce that paradox by making photographs that convince the viewer that those revelations, that order, that potential for meaning, are coming from the world and not the photograph.

– Frank Gohlke, 1979

Aerial View, Tulsa, Oklahoma is a photograph by American photographer Frank Gohlke, taken in 1981. One of 10 artists included in the groundbreaking 1975 exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, Gohlke emerged as an important voice challenging then-prevailing trends in modern photography.[1] Working against romanticized depictions of nature, Gohlke and others in the exhibition produced photographs described by the curator, William Jenkins, as “eschewing entirely the aspects of beauty, emotion and opinion.”[2]

Though Jenkins felt otherwise, one could certainly argue that Gohlke’s Aerial View, Tulsa, Oklahoma is in fact a beautiful and emotive image. Sure, it is far from the Platonic ideal of nature, but the photograph’s composition—with its nested and overlapping arcs, dramatic shadows, and abstract patterning—contains within it a certain beauty. It might not be Ansel Adams’s Half Dome, but it is a photograph that elevates otherwise banal and unattractive subject matter, poetically calling attention to man’s impact on the natural world.

Importantly, Gohlke and his New Topographics cohort reinforced the notion of landscape as a manmade concept. It is a word and idea predicated on a human subject who turns the land into an object and, artistically, into an image. The very definition of the word hinges on an aestheticized understanding of nature. In Aerial View, Tulsa, Oklahoma, Gohlke deftly mobilizes photography to highlight the extent to which the landscape is indeed a manmade image, as well as an object—or resource—to be taken and transformed.

The “new” American topography on offer in 1975’s New Topographics was no longer unspoiled or pristine wilderness, but a country comprised of suburban sprawl, connecting interstates, and parking lots. Whether or not we find that beautiful is up to us to decide. Luckily, this work and others from SAM’s permanent collection are on view in the upcoming New Topographics exhibition on view in the third floor Modern and Contemporary Galleries.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Image: Aerial View, Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1981, Frank Gohlke, gelatin silver photograph, 6 1/8 x 16 in., Pacific Northwest Bell, the Photography Council, the Polaroid Foundation, Mark Abrahamson, and the National Endowment for the Arts, 83.69.5 © Frank Gohlke
[1] The other artists featured in the exhibition were Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore, Henry Wessel, Jr., and Bernd and Hilla Becher.
[2] William Jenkins, New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape (Rochester, New York: International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House, 1975), n.p.
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