Friday, June 17, 2011

Along the French roads… (Part 1)

Everyone even slightly interested in the History of Photography and especially here in the United States will come across what is called ‘New Topographics’. This movement in photographic art started here in the 70s and is named after an exhibition held in 1975 in the International Museum of Photography: New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape. 
Stephen Shore, 2nd Street and South Main Street, Kalispell, Montana, August 22, 1974
Mostly featuring the work of American photographers it represents a new approach to landscape photography where the banal, the uniform, suburbs, industrial development, roads become the main photographic subject.  Far away from the imagery of grandiose American nature and far away from ‘decisive moment’ social documentary, this movement is about finding aesthetic and hidden beauty in the dull, the boring, the empty. It’s about depicting what we see everyday without even looking, what appears in our peripheral vision at a crossroad, on the side of a street without us even noticing. But the impact and the influence that this movement has on today’s photography also seems to express the fact that these (at the time surprising) landscape images also convey a political message questioning ‘man alterations’ on nature.  
Robert Adams, Tract House, Westminster, Colorado, 1973
Anyway my objective is not to retrace the history of the movement or of this specific exhibition, which is by the way currently traveling through Europe (Germany, Netherlands, Spain – unfortunately I missed it as it was in San Francisco just before I arrived…) But as I explore the images and approaches that define today’s contemporary photography I couldn’t avoid noticing the strong influence of such a movement on young photographers and I guess especially in America. In addition to the  undeniable aesthetic of these photographs I started to understand their main value through the interesting testimony they leave us. Depicting things as they are forces us to see things as they really are, to better look around us and question our relationship to our environment. 
And as I explored the American environment through ‘Topographics’ photographs I started to wonder what my own country looks like through the lens of ‘Topographics’ photographers? What do the French altered landscapes look like? So here are some answers from a girl freshly arrived in the United States looking back at the environment where she grew up. 
Mission photographique de la DATAR
The first and amazingly interesting example of the American New Topographics’ influence on French photography is certainly the project commissioned in 1984 by the DATAR (a French governmental delegation dedicated to town and country planning and regional activities). With the objective of representing the French landscape in the 80s, the DATAR first commissioned 12 photographers to travel through France and document its environment. The project grew and it was finally 28 photographers, French and foreign, unknown and famous who created an in depth photographic archive of French landscapes. 
Gabriele Basilico, France, 1984-1985
With images from photographers such as Joseph Koudelka, Lewis Baltz, Gabriele Basilico, Robert Doisneau or Raymond Depardon, this mission is probably the starting point of new European landscape photography. Each photographer expressed his personal engagement with the territory with his own photographic style and explored new aesthetic and emotional dimensions of French landscape photography.
Here is a picture of the initial team. If you’re interested in more portraits of the photographers in 1984, you can find some here:
The book published in 1989 is now a collectible.
Unfortunately I was unable to recall many images of the project and the ones I found usually have no title, no indication of the location and no author but they offer a good seen of this historical photographic project. 
Learn more: 

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