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How has Frank Gohlke’s view of landscape photography altered since the New Topographics exhibition?
October 1975 heralded the emergence of an alternative view of landscape photography. Curator, William Jenkins, showcased the work of ten up-and-coming photographers. American photographer, Frank Gohlke, was one of those exhibiting photographers. Over forty years since the exhibition, this essay will discuss whether Frank Gohlke’s view of landscape photography has altered.
Consisting of a catalogue of just 48 photographs, the ‘New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape’ exhibition was seen by a relatively few number of people, referred to by some as ‘the greatest show never seen’ (Jurovics, 2013:1). Despite this, the New Topographics brought a different perspective to landscape photography. It challenged the romantic and picturesque interpretation of the frontier regions of the American landscape (Jurovics, 2013:1-2). The exhibition presented an alternative to iconic landscape photographers, such as Ansel Adams, Wynn Bullock, Minor White and Paul Caponigro. Whilst the ‘old topographic’ method required the photographer to be actively engaged in selecting, framing and composing a photograph, it’s successor involved very little interpretation of where to position the frame. William Jenkins believed that the photographs were made with a dry, formal style by stating that the photographs in the exhibition ‘function with a minimum of inflection in the sense that the photographer’s influence on the look of the subject is minimal’ (Jenkins, 1975, cited in Foster-Rice, 2013:45).
The human domination of the New Topographic landscape contrasted with the nineteenth century landscape photographers, who expertly amalgamated human alterations within the environment – the technological sublime (Foster-Rice & Rohrbach, 2013:54). For example, Carleton Watkins and William Henry Jackson used viewpoints which enabled railroad tracks to nestle along the contours of hills and canyons. For example, in Jackson’s ‘Canon of the Rio Las Animas’ (Fig. 1), the locomotive is carefully positioned so that it blends into the cliff face.
Frank Gohlke’s images in the exhibition addressed the ‘automobile dominated suburban culture’ (Foster-Rice & Rohrbach, 2013:xvii). For example, Fig. 2. is a square-cropped, monochrome photograph, which shows a variety of lines and arrows, all angled around a deserted car park. There appears to be no real purpose or importance to the image, therefore leaving the viewer with very little to interpret. It is a view similar to any other that you might see from the car window. Coincidentally, the car window provided a young Frank Gohlke with:
endless hours of wide-eyed dreaming were there in my deep memory to nourish the
adult visions I was fabricating with the camera (Rohrbach, 2007:31).
Maybe his image (Fig 2) meant more to Gohlke than Jenkins, therefore their interpretations of it would differ. The car was enabling Americans to venture further into the places that adorned their walls – the new frontier. They would need places to park their cars and eat, whilst making pilgrimages to the spectacular vistas that Ansel Adams captured. For example, the ‘Tetons and the Snake River’ (Fig 3), depicts a monumental mountain range in the background of a black and white photograph, that has a rich tonal variation and great depth of field. Meanwhile the Snake River winds its way into the foreground. With such attention to detail, it is understandable that the viewer would assume that the photographer was fully engaged in the entire picture taking process.
Having spent his childhood looking out across the flat open plains of Wichita Falls, Texas, it is clear to see how this features in Gohlke’s photographs (Rohrbach, J. 2007:127). Gohlke’s photographs are characterised by wide open spaces and clear horizons (Fig 4). Therefore, it is misleading to presume that Gohlke’s images are purely based on structure and form. His photographs are just as much about what is not there, as what can be seen. One would presume that a hometown called ‘Wichita Falls’ would present Gohlke with countless opportunities to photograph sublime waterfalls and picturesque views. However, Wichita’s falls were reduced to just a trickle following a catastrophic flood. Subsequently, Gohlke’s own sense of identity was shaped by the power of nature. Growing up with such a minimalistic landscape, there was nothing either sublime or picturesque to concentrate the frame on. Therefore, Gohlke had to explore other aspects of landscape photography, including how nature shapes the land, and how this affects those who reside there.
Although people are rarely in Gohlke’s photographs, their presence is a clear feature. Gohlke refers to his local community as ‘hospitable and generous people, who loved good stories’ (Gohlke, Rohrbach, 2007:17). It could be argued that this love of storytelling influenced Gohlke’s style; his desire to tell the story of the landscape. Gohlke’s connection to the land was deeply rooted within his family tree. He recounted the times he spent with his Uncle Ones and Aunt Lois, who herded beef cattle and looked after oil wells. Gohlke’s ‘Texas roots run deep’ (Rohrbach, 2007:22) and this has had a profound impact on his landscape photography.
Furthermore, when questioning whether Gohlke’s photographic style has altered, it is useful to understand Gohlke’s own interpretation of landscape photography at the time, which was that:
Landscape work was being done by a lot of people who were influenced by Adams, Weston, Minor White and Caponigro that just seemed really dead to me - all the conviction had gone out of it. They weren’t responding to the world anymore: they were responding to an ideal of photographic excellence that came purely from other photographers (Accommodating Nature: The Photographs of Frank Gohlke, 2010).
Another indication of conflicting interpretations of the exhibition was the absence of images from Gohlke’s recently acclaimed book ‘Measure of Emptiness: Grain Elevators in the American Landscapes’. This exclusion was noted by Wells (2011a), who states that:
the mid-range grey tones which typify this series express something of the relative
uniformity of the environment as he perceived it. In keeping with the topographic idiom,
the style is descriptive and ostensibly non-committal…
If Gohlke was an advocate of the New Topographic method, then one would have expected Gohlke's images of grain elevators to feature in Jenkins' exhibition. In addition to this, Gohlke’s grain elevator series bares some similarities to Hild and Bernd Becher’s typological studies of European industrial edifices, that were included in the New Topographics exhibition (Fig 5). Instead, Gohlke preferred to exhibit photographs of water towers, roads and parking lots that he found around the Twin Cities. In order to resolve this confusion, Gohlke explains that:
I was frustrated by the discrepancy between the ordinariness of the facts surrounding the grain elevators and the intensity of my emotional responses to the objects themselves.
(Gohlke, 1992, cited in Foster-Rice & Rohrbach, 2013: 5)
Subsequently, the ordinariness of the grain elevators would make them an ideal choice for Jenkins’ exhibition. However, the very fact that this contributed to Gohlke not including them would suggest that he did not have the same opinion or intention of the exhibition as its’ curator.
At first glance it could be easily assumed that Gohlke's intention was to create angular compositions. His 'Grain Elevator and Plowed field' (Fig 6), shows the horizon line clearly and simply dividing the frame. Another interpretation is that Gohlke’s objective was to suggest that the tension between form and meaning exists within the subjects themselves, rather than being restricted within the edges of a photograph. If it was not for the surrounding fields and farmers, then the grain elevators would not exist. Therefore, he could not be classed as a New Topographics photographer.
With the emergence of abstract photography, the landscape became a mere backdrop to features such as order, sequence and structure. Furthermore, just like Timothy O'Sullivan, Eadweard Muybridge and William Henry Jackson surveyed and documented the 'new frontier', the New Topographics photographers were documenting the everyday and mundane. Giblett & Tolonen (2012) continue by claiming that onlookers were too eager to classify the New Topographics as being 'barren ground'. This distinction is important when determining whether Frank Gohlke's image making has altered since the New Topographics exhibition, especially if his photographs should not have been perceived like that.
One reason for Gohlke’s fascination with buildings was that he had spent seven years living in New England's undulating landscape. The Midwest was unspectacular, compared to the sublime and picturesque vistas that Ansel Adams experienced. Consequently, Gohlke directed his camera towards familiar buildings within his own neighbourhood. This led Jenkins to believe that ‘the built environment had recently become a central theme for a number of little-known landscape photographers’ (Rohrbach, 2007:132). Jenkins compared this new breed of landscape photographer as being like the survey photographers of the previous century, who accompanied explorations into the new frontier of the wild west. However, whilst Carleton Watkins and William Henry Jackson’s photographs merged man-made artefacts into the landscape, whereas Gohlke's images clearly separate human structures from their surroundings (Fig 6).
As a graduate student in Literature at Yale, Gohlke is inspired by the narrative behind the landscapes he witnesses. He considers the landscape to be a human construct (Rosa, 2010) that exists when humanity and nature overlap. At this interface between the two, man's ability to alter and control the landscape is both limited and fragile. In 1979, Gohlke witnessed the destructive force of nature, when a tornado ripped apart Wichita Falls. He was profoundly affected by this natural disaster, which revealed to him that:
There is a deep sense of connection to a larger community that is revealed when the fog of
busyness that we live in is blown apart, swept away, buried, or otherwise destroyed.
(Gohlke, 2007: 58)
Gohlke’s connection to the landscape was evident in his ‘Aftermath’ series of photographs, when he returned to re-photograph the same spot a year after the disaster. Figures 7 and 8 illustrate the devastation caused by the tornado and the subsequent redevelopment afterwards. However, it wasn’t the resulting images that he was interested in, but the space between the two (Gohlke, 2007: 74). Gohlke was interested in the narrative between the two images.
One year later, nature played its part once again in shaping Gohlke’s landscape portfolio. Having been frustrated about the coverage of the Mount St. Helens eruption on the 18th May, 1980, he went to document the event himself (Fig. 9). Figure 9 illustrates a dramatic landscape, at first which seemed reminiscent of Ansel Adams’ sublimity. However, Emmett Gowin, produced images (Fig. 10) that were much more sublime. In fact, there was nothing picturesque, or sublime, about Gohlke' photographs. In Figure 9, the plantation of trees flattened like match sticks display a sense of the New Topographics, in the way the image has been framed – tightly cropped and appearing to document the event. Whereas Gowin’s viewpoint (Fig. 10) provides context (by revealing more of the landscape) and therefore emphasizing the scale of the devastation. Nevertheless, Gohlke's images were certainly not of a New Topographic style. His images encapsulated the enormity of the event and its impact on human activities, such as the decimated logging industry that used to thrive on the fertile slopes of the volcano before the eruption. This was a view that Gohlke maintained back in 1978, that:
Most of us...are primarily concerned with understanding the things we photograph in their largest relationships to land and culture, and the particularities of social existence (Jenkins, 1979, cited in Gohlke, 2009:49).
Once again, the fact that Gohlke revisited St Helens afterwards, to document the geographical and cultural changes, is further evidence that he fully engages with the subjects he photographs. There is a reason, a desire for him being there, which goes way beyond the bland representation of an ‘increasingly homogenous automobile-dominated suburban culture’ (Foster-Rice & Rohrbach, 2013:xvii). The Mount St Helens eruption was the complete opposite of the ordered, uniformity of the New Topographics.
All photographs would fit the New Topographic genre, if we are led to believe Wells (2011) that images do not have memory. Whilst the New Topographic way involves very little interpretation of the scene, Gohlke has a much more considered approach, that fosters empathy and concern. A solitary grain elevator placed on a bare horizon, surrounded by nothingness, would cause some viewers to question 'Why?' However, Barthes (1982) explained that we find some images more appealing and thought-provoking than others, based on punctum (Wells, 2011b). Having grown up on the vast Texan plains, Gohlke's photographs mean something to him.
After researching the New Topographics and Frank Gohlke’s photography, I reflected more on my own motivations and intentions when taking landscape photographs. In familiar surroundings, I am drawn to places that mean something to me. They are part of my own personal narrative, so I already have preconceived views about the images I could take before I arrive there. For example, in my third assignment, ‘Parklife’, I used a montage of images to represent the many different perceptions of Riversley Park. Figure 11 depicts a man walking the very same path I have walked countless times before. However this is not a technique that I use all the time. In my second assignment, ‘Encroachment’, I documented my journey through an unfamiliar place, which I had no personal connection to. Figure 12 illustrates a skip peaking out from behind a hedgerow. The scene was interesting to me, but I did not invest much time in composing the shot, because it meant nothing to me.
Having been so strongly associated with the New Topographic genre, it would be forgivable to view Gohlke's images at face value. Square, cropped frames that encase man-made graphic, geometrical constructs. However, it is nature that has been the driving force behind Frank Gohlke's photography. Gohlke presents the viewer with a dynamic relationship between the world and our desire to control it. Where Adams idealises the wilderness, Gohlke focuses on the disruptions and tectonics that have produced the landscape (Rosa, 2010). If Wichita had not suffered such a violent storm, if Mount St. Helens had not exploded, then maybe Frank Gohlke’s camera would have been focused on the mass, sprawling urban developments and autonomous service culture, that William Jenkins was so keen to advocate. Gohlke’s love for literature has instilled a passion for telling stories and he is intent on documenting how humanity adapts to the nature-altered landscape.
List of Illustrations
Figure 1. Jackson, W. H. (1885) Canon of the Rio Las Animas [Photograph] At: http://www.museumsyndicate.com/item.php?item=51687 (Accessed 6th April 2016)
Figure 2. Gohlke, F. (1974) Landscape Los Angeles [Photograph] At: http://www.photography-now.com/exhibition/73393 (Accessed on 5th April 2016)
Figure 3. Adams, A (1942) The Tetons and the Snake River [Photograph] At: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/21/Adams_The_Tetons_and_the_Snake_River.jpg (Accessed on 6th April 2016)
Figure 4. Gohlke, F. (1973) Grain Elevator, Haggard, Kansas [Photograph] At: http://prod-images.exhibit-e.com/www_yanceyrichardson_com/1fa33e45.jpg (Accessed 6th April 2016)
Figure 5. Becher, B & H. (1979) Water Tower, New York City: 47 Crosby St. [Photograph] At: http://www.artnet.com/artists/bernd-and-hilla-becher/-water-tower-new-york-city-47-crosby-st-a-wWZ1OliXzH_slhcOBkoIqQ2 (Accessed 6th April 2016).
Figure 6. Gohlke, F. (1973) Grain Elevator and Plowed Field – Wellington Kansas [Photograph] At: https://www.gallery.ca/en/see/collections/artwork.php?mkey=44691 (Accessed 6th April 2016)
Figure 7. Gohlke, F. (1979) Aftermath: The Wichita Falls Tornado, 1600 Block Aldrich Avenue, Looking East, April 14, 1979 [Photograph] At: http://timkarr.tumblr.com/post/51560747238/frank-gohlke-aftermath-the-wichita-falls-texas (Accessed on 6th April 2016).
Figure 8. Gohlke, F. (1980) Aftermath: The Wichita Falls Tornado, 1600 Block Aldrich Avenue, Looking East, June 1980. [Photograph] At: http://timkarr.tumblr.com/post/51560747238/frank-gohlke-aftermath-the-wichita-falls-texas (Accessed on 6th April 2016).
Figure 9. Gohlke, F. (1981) Aerial view: downed forest near Elf Rock. Approximately ten miles northwest of Mount St. Helens, 1981 [Photograph] At: http://www.frankgohlke.com/Mt-St-Helens (Accessed 6th April 2016)
Figure 10. Gowin, E. (1980) Mount St. Helens Area. Collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington. [Photograph] At: http://blogs.artinfo.com/modernartnotes/2013/01/the-man-podcast-emmet-gowin-frank-gohlke/ (Accessed 6th April 2016)
Figure 11. Davenport, M (2015) The Wonderer [Photograph]
(Accessed 6th April 2016)
Figure 12. Davenport, M. (2015) Untitled taken from Assignment 2: Encroachment. At: http://www.mattdavenportphotography.co.uk/landscape/blog/assignment2 (Accessed 6th April 2016)
Accommodating Nature: The Photographs of Frank Gohlke (2010) [user-generated content online] Creat. Smithsonian American Art Museum, 26 July 2010. At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eiV0DVjr_e8 (Accessed on 6 April 2016)
Foster-Rice, G. (2013) ‘Systems Everywhere’ In: Rohrbach, J. (2013) Reframing the New Topographics. Chicago: Center Books on American Places. pp.45-70.
Foster-Rice, G. & Rohrbach, J. (2013) Reframing the New Topographics. Chicago: Center Books on American Places.
Giblett, R. & Tolonen, J. (2012) Photography and Landscape. [Kindle Edition] Amazon.co.uk (Accessed on 6 April 2016).
Gohlke, F. (1992) Measure of Emptiness: Grain Elevators in the American Landscape (Creating the North American Landscape. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press
Gohlke, F. (2007) ‘Stories in the Dirt, Stories in the Air’ In: Rohrbach, J. (2007) Accommodating Nature: The Photographs of Frank Gohlke. Chicago: Center Books on American Places. pp.17-126.
Gohlke, F. (2009) (Ed) Thoughts on Landscape: Collected Writings and Interviews [Kindle Edition] Amazon.co.uk (Accessed on 6 April 2016).
Jenkins, W. (1979) ‘Interview by Mary Virginia Swanson for Northlight: Photography at Arizona State University”, no. 10 (1979) In: Gohlke, F. (2009) (Ed) Thoughts on Landscape: Collected Writings and Interviews [Kindle Edition] Amazon.co.uk (Accessed on 6 April 2016).
Jurovics, T. (2013) ‘Same as it ever was; rereading New Topographics’ In: Foster-Rice, G. & Rohrbach, J. (2013) Reframing the New topographics. Chicago: Center Books on American Places. pp. 1-12.
Rohrbach, J. (2007) Accommodating Nature: The Photographs of Frank Gohlke. Chicago: Center Books on American Places.
Rosa, B. (2010) Frank Gohlke: Thoughts on Landscape At: https://placesjournal.org/article/frank-gohlke-thoughts-on-landscape/ (Accessed on 6 April 2016)
Solnit, R. (2007) ‘Comfort and Debris’ In: Rohrbach, J. (2007) Accommodating Nature: The Photographs of Frank Gohlke. Chicago: Center Books on American Places. pp. 155-16
Wells, L. (2011a) Land Matters. [Kindle Edition] Amazon.co.uk (Accessed on 6 April 2016).
Wells, L. (2011b) Camera Lucida. London. Jonathan Cape. First published in French, 1980, as La Chambre Claire, Editions du Seuil.