EcoTopographics Preface

EcoTopographics symbolizes the flip side of “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape," an exhibition curated by William Jenkins for the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, Rochester, New York in 1975. (See Eco Statement for the comparison and contrast.) Jenkins' postmodern artists framed landscapes spoiled by commercial artifice. All too often, ranch homes with large picture windows framed "bland-scaped" neighborhoods. Architects designed massive industrial parks with few windows and barren vistas. Rows and rows of green lights buzzed down on cavernous warehouse spaces and industrial complexes, and workers within. New Topographics artists echoed Joni Mitchell’s sentiments: “They paved paradise to put up a parking lot.”

The tone of Jenkin’s exhibiting artists was dark, critical, and pessimistic. In effect, the images documented devolution; industrial parks, expansive parking lots, big-box stores, fast-food restaurants, and malls sprouted across the land. Urban sprawl and ecological destruction swelled to flood the land and devastate nature and psyches. Within decades, inharmonious practices grew exponentially. The commercial mindset was not holistic or harmonious; it was self-serving, shortsighted, and unsustainable.

Many scholars noted that “New Topographics” artists “demythologized the American West," but it represented more than that: it exposed the shallowness of the American Dream and the futility of manifest destination gone awry.

We must take a step back to contextualize. In the Sixties, the American conservation movement slowed down as layers of ecological disharmony overwhelmed citizens across the nation. The zeitgeist defrocked Ansel Adams, as urban blight, suburban sprawl, over-population, strip mining, clear cutting, endangered species, and pollution of water, air and soil became American obsessions and new causes for artists.

Jenkins' New Topographics artists learned much from Adams' tradition; their images were masterfully composed and they appropriated Adam's Precisionist style with sharp, detailed images with the maximum depth of field. These photographers, unlike Ansel Adams, were not "Idealists"; they were "Realist" anthropologists framing and cataloging the new status quo. Their rational perspectives drew eyes to geometric forms; artificial lattices stretched across spiritless vistas. Vegetation no longer framed distant horizons. These New Topographic photographers looked down from a bird's eye view that highlighted patterns, documented the lack of trees, and eliminated horizons. Jenkins' artists agreed with Adams... "Man was [not] the measure of all things;” capitalism’s philosophical folly must not overshadow natural laws. Communities of micro-organisms, vegetation, and wildlife are vital to a pragmatic, scientific, or I-Thou relationships with Nature.

Leonard Shlain, author of "Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light," provides insights applicable to the "New Topographics" genre. “All too often, when reading about works of exceptional artists… rarely is their work explained concerning how they anticipated the future,” said Shlain. Did Jenkins' artists intuitively sense and foresee the larger Anthropocene? In their mind's eyes, they must have felt this momentum: "Man-Altered Landscapes" were devolving into "Man-Altered Earth." Inharmonious ecosystems stretching across vast continents, oceans, and the polar regions became new norms. Today, ecologies are collapsing like dominos. Colby summarizes Jenkins' vision like this: industrial civilizations are out of sync with the nature of Nature... and therefore the nature of humanity.