Suburban Sublime

-- Truck stop and power plant, South Indianapolis, Indiana 2006.

New-Topographics, was a term, “first used by the American William Jenkins (1975 exh. cat.) to characterize the style of a number of young photographers he had chosen for the exhibition at the International Museum of Photography, Rochester, NY, in 1975. These photographers avoided the ‘subjective’ themes of beauty and emotion and shared an apparent disregard for traditional subject-matter. Instead they emphasized the ‘objective’ description of a location, showing a preference for landscape that included everyday features of industrial culture. This style, suggesting a tradition of documentary rather than formalist photography, is related to the idea of ‘social landscape’, which explores how man affects his natural environment. Jenkins traced the style back to several photographic series by Edward Ruscha in the early 1960s of urban subjects such as petrol stations and Los Angeles apartments.” The Grove Dictionary of Art

Some of my earliest memories are of a dream. I am looking down from high above and surrounding me are tract homes in every direction reaching to infinity. Then, in this dream, I am running but I can’t get out of the housing tract where I find myself. The first of these photos are from the town where I sort of grew up. There earlier images are probably more in line with the philosophies of the New-Topographics photographers but lately I’ve been attempting see beyond just how things look when I make landscape photographs.

These photos are about the American landscape as I have seen it. Though, I love the subjective photographs of Ansel Adams, yes it’s true – but that world is gone. And I like the thought process behind the works of photographers like Robert Adams (no relation to Ansel). My newer photos are a somewhat subjective these days when I look at the American landscape mostly as a reaction to it’s cold cookie cutter blandness. However, these photos look about how they did when I shot them. I didn’t Photoshop them except to remove some dust and adjust the midtones.

The New-Topographics photographers were a group of photographers and artists in the 1970s that ignored notions of the ideal American landscape photograph. They realized that was gone and set to work photographing how the landscape actually looked with strip malls, tract homes and other man made structures in the middle of the environment.

I spent most of my younger years in a working class suburb. First we lived just outside the San Francisco Bay Area. Then later, we lived in a town called Porterville, about two hours north of downtown Los Angeles. Between these locations, my family lived on a mountaintop and there was almost no development but the hills were still scarred from hydraulic mining of the mountainsides from the gold rush about 100 years before.

I certainly liked living in a Suburban house; it was a lot nicer than a tent or a camping trailer. But, I also watched as fields, became gobbled up by housing tracts and the landscape became a maze of streets, freeways, strip malls, more housing tracts, faceless industrial parks and all sorts of manmade structures.

However, I began to appreciate how things were built since my father was construction worker and sometimes I worked with him. He always saw the structure as something utilitarian but I’d look at the framing of a house and see an abstract painting.

This is a series of images from first Porterville, and then from the Midwest and around the New York City area. I suppose development is with us now … so can it be beautiful and sublime?