The American Landscape Photographers Who Focused on the Environment in the ’70s
June 28, 2017
The 1970s are sometimes called the “environmental decade,” due to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the enaction of major environmental legislation, and the increase in awareness of ecological issues such as ozone depletion, the harms of DDT, and acid rain. The spirit of the times also made a considerable impression on the field of landscape photography, most memorably catalogued in New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, a modest but influential 1975 exhibition at the George Eastman Museum.
The 10 participating artists represented trends that prioritized commonplace landscapes—tract homes, motels, dilapidated buildings—over sublime and romantic depictions of nature. Though there were precedents for these artists, including Eugène Atget, Robert Frank, and Ed Ruscha, by the 1970s a unique style and approach emerged that was rooted in then contemporary concerns. Environmental Exposure: Photography and Ecology after 1970, currently on view at Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center, brings together several artists from New Topographics with others also working at the time to consider this relationship between environmentalism and art history.
Curator William Jenkins wrote in the catalogue essay for New Topographics that the works on display eschew “beauty, emotion, and opinion.” What’s more, the exhibition’s scientific sounding title suggests objectivity, whereas Environmental Exposure makes a stronger case that landscape photographers in the 1970s were responding precisely to the politics and changing world of their time.
Joe Deal, who was included in New Topographics, typifies this new interest in everyday architecture and landscapes in “Colton, California” (1973). His black-and-white photograph documents the spreading of suburbia in this small town at the eastern reaches of the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area. Large rocks and desert brush are foregrounded while in the distance a nascent cul-de-sac is discernable from the cement foundations of future homes. The image contrasts the geologically active landscape with the city planner and real estate developer’s tamer vision for it.
Lewis Baltz addresses similar themes in “Night Construction, Reno” (1977), a high-contrast photograph with pitch-black hills and the illuminated wooden skeleton of another future home. Though the development’s exact location in Reno is unclear, the work nonetheless exploits the juxtaposition of rural and suburban — an almost inherent tension in suburban developments in the American West.
Though Robert Adams may be the most famous photographer of 1970s suburbia, particularly in Colorado, his sole contribution to Environmental Exposure is a photograph of the bank of the Missouri River in South Dakota. The tranquil but unremarkable landscape is drab, and the trees are without leaves. The scene could be timeless if not for a wayward Budweiser can invading the picture near the bottom left corner. One might consider the image ironic or cynical, but it is also a truthful representation of riverbanks across the country, and to crop out the can might be even more cynical.
This desire to avoid romanticizing the landscape is fundamental to the shifts in landscape photography that occurred in the late 1960s and 1970s. Frank Gohlke’s “Landscape, Albuquerque” (1974) takes this iconoclasm to its natural conclusion. Confidently asserting with its title that we are looking at a landscape, the image offers nothing natural except for the cloudy New Mexico sky and a fraction of a hill in the distance. A smooth concrete embankment occupies a third of the image, and the horizon line is populated with cars and billboards. Even the mud at the bottom of the embankment is branded by tire tracks. But this is a type of landscape many people are familiar with, even in easy-to-romanticize New Mexico.
Conversely, suburbia may be difficult for many to romanticize. Yet one of the most defining and consequential features of suburbia and of the twentieth-century American landscape as a whole can barely escape mythologizing—the automobile. At first glance, Elaine Mayes’s dreamy photograph of a Mobil Pegasus logo, lit up at night with a vinyl-roofed coupe parked in front, seems to bask in this mythology. Admittedly, being born more than a decade after the photograph was created, it is impossible for me not to project American folklore onto the image, but nonetheless, Mayes does aestheticize the corporate logo of an oil giant. But the artist’s 1971 series Autolandscapes demonstrates her nuanced investigation of highways and car culture as part of the land. The work is neither overtly critical nor praiseful, but focuses on the forms — at times beautiful, banal, and bizarre — seen from the car window.
In a 1999 essay for the Nevada Museum of Art’s Altered Landscape Photography collection, art critic Dave Hickey describes traditional landscape imagery from the Northern European Protestant diaspora as offering both “historical proofs” and “utopian promises.” In this tradition of image making — think Ansel Adams or Albert Bierstadt — artists create images reflecting their visions of the landscape. However, with many artists from the Altered Landscape collection (which shares artists with Environmental Exposure and New Topographics), Hickey saw the emergence of what he calls “revisionist” photographers, who question how to portray nature when the prevailing images of nature have become naturalized.
Though Hickey is correct that landscape painters and photographers of yore made images from nature that reflected their own visions, the artists in Environmental Exposure inevitably worked from their own visions, or at least interpretations, of the land. It is no coincidence that the stylistic shift in landscape photography they evidence occurred at the same time Joni Mitchell was warning us about paving paradise and putting all the trees in a tree museum. In fact, the most naturalistic photograph in Environmental Exposure, Jacqueline Thurston’s “California Condor” (1982), depicting the critically endangered vulture perched on a branch, is actually a taxidermied specimen in a museum.