MASSIVE IMAGERY Adams’s Half Dome, Blowing Snow, Yosemite National Park, California.
In 1975, the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, opened a landmark exhibit, "New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape." What set these photographers apart was their determination, as photographer Lewis Baltz put it, that "the ideal photographic document would appear to be without author or art."
Their deadpan style — which curator William Jenkins described as "pictures stripped of any artistic frills and reduced to an essentially topographic state, conveying substantial amounts of visual information but eschewing entirely the aspects of beauty, emotion and opinion" — remains the most pervasive and influential style in art photography today.
And it's codified in "America in View: Landscape Photography 1865 to Now," an enlightening revisionist history via some 150 photos selected by curator Jan Howard at the RISD Museum (224 Benefit St, Providence, through January 13).
The show begins with Timothy O'Sullivan's 1871 shot of Colorado River canyons. He was one of the photographers sent to survey the Wild West to open it to white development and railroads and tourism, and ultimately displace the natives. Looking at their prints feels like peering into the darkness of time.
SWIRLING PATTERNS Detail of Gowin’s Aeration Pond, Toxic Water Treatment Facility, Pine Bluff, Arkansas.
In an effort to legitimize photography as art, Alfred Stieglitz helped pioneer the Pictorialist style that emulated the look of paintings, as in his gauzy 1904 photograph a farmer plowing behind a team of horses. Steiglitz would soon advocate the shift to Modernist "straight photography," which emphasized clarity and the camera's own qualities.
Which helped give us Ansel Adams, the most celebrated and popularly beloved landscape photographer of the past century. He gets only a cameo — via a late photo of snow blowing across the massive, forbidding peak of Yosemite's Half Dome, his signature subject. It's odd how the show sidesteps Adams — like writing a history of baseball over the past century and minimizing the Yankees. It's okay not be a fan, but to make them bit players feels inaccurate.
Arthur Rothstein's 1936 photo shows a man and his boys leaning into an Oklahoma dust storm buffeting their run down shack — a Great Depression icon. Robert Frank, who motored across the country for his landmark 1959 book The Americans, is represented by a picture of a New Mexico highway seeming to run straight on forever.
QUEST FOR AUTHENTICITY Baltz’s Model Home, Shadow Mountain.
One way of describing this history is one group after another rejecting their predecessors' photographs in a quest for greater authenticity until we arrive at the show's heart, New Topographics projects like Ed Ruscha's 1966 catalogue of Every Building On the Sunset Strip and Baltz's 1977 photos of ranch houses going up in the Nevada desert. They rejected what they saw as the ostentatious artiness of Stieglitz's Modernism and Adams's monumentality and Rothestein's heroicizing and Frank's jazzy Beat improvisations in favor of a new formalist, mechanical "objectivity." They often photographed subjects head-on or at neat 45-degree angles, as if they were surveyors plainly cataloguing specimens.