Question: Can you think of any photographs that are not used as a means of expression or communication?
Photographs that appear at first glance, especially when viewed as a collection, to be devoid of communication or expression are those that fall within the category New Topographics. At least since the 1970s work of this type ‘rejected traditional romantic visions of nature for a focus on the ‘man-altered landscape’’ (Edwards, 2006: 64).
A prominent proponent of the New Topographics is Bernd and Hilla Becher who over a period of forty years ‘photographed the architecture of industrialisation: water towers, coal bunkers, blast furnaces, gas tanks and factory facades’ (O’Hagan, 2014). Figure 1 shows a collection of their photographs of coal bunkers. The art historian Sarah James writes that objectivity lies at the very centre of the Becher’s project:
Above all else, the photographic world of the Bechers is committed to objectivity. Their consistent, arguably impossible, aim has been to evacuate their own subjectivity from the work, to remove themselves as expressive agents as much as is humanly possible from the photographic act (Soutter, 2013: 36)
The Bechers’ working method was systematic and therefore introduced a paradox: ‘the Bechers’ non-style is itself a style’ (Soutter, 2013: 36). A student of the Bechers is Frank Breuer (b. 1963) whose project ‘Poles’ is an eponymous taxonomic study (Breuer, 2007; Breuer, s.d).
Another photographer influenced by the New Topographic photographers was Ed Ruscha (b. 1937) who produced sixteen photography books from the early 1960s to the late 1970s with titles such as ‘Twentysix Gasoline Stations’ (1962), and ‘Every Building on the Sunset Strip’(1966). The description ‘deadpan’ is often used to describe the work of Ruscha and similar artists for example, Candida Hofer, Frank Breuer (above) and Thomas Struth (Soutter, 2013: 31). The Bechers’ influence was:
widely acknowledged, not just in terms of their own work, which fascinated Stephen Shore as he began photographing America, but because of their roles as teachers …, where their pupils included Thomas Ruff, Candida Höfer and Andreas Gursky (O’Hagan, 2014).
However, O’Hagan observes that the photographs are not devoid of communication when he concludes the work of the Bechers:
shows that, through the passing of time, even that which was once considered purely functional and even ugly, can attain beauty when seen through the eyes of the most attentive photographers (O’Hagan, 2014).
Breuer, Frank (2007) Poles Grinnell: Faulconer Gallery
Breuer, Frank (s.d) Poles At: http://www.frankbreuer.com/projects-1.html (Accessed on: 17.03.15)
Edwards, Steve (2006) Photography. A Very Short Introduction Oxford: Oxford University Press
O’Hagan, Sean (2014) Lost world: Bernd and Hilla Becher’s legendary industrial photographs At: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/sep/03/bernd-and-hilla-becher-cataloguing-the-ominous-sculptural-forms-of-industrial-architecture (Accessed on: 17.03.15)
Soutter, Lucy (2013) Why Art Photography? London: Routledge
List of Illustrations
Figure 1 Becher, Bernd and Hilla (1966-1999) Coal Bunkers At: http://i.guim.co.uk/static/w-1920/h–/q-95/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2014/9/3/1409750303240/Bern-and-Hilla-Bechers-Co-005.jpg (Accessed on: 17.03.15)