This was the moment that I began to realize how the topographic photography tradition (ie., the 1975 New Topographics – Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape at the George Eastman House in Rochester, USA) had an environmental undercurrent within its emphasis on the ‘banal’, the ‘ordinary’ and the ‘mundane’, that is everyday subjects. Whilst the New Topographics exhibition’s subtitle of a ‘man-altered landscape’, pointed out that the influence of humans on the Earth, the label ‘New Topographics’ neglected the immanent references to the environment made by the photographers.
The Old Topographics in relation to picture-making (ie., in the 18th and 19th centuries) understood topographics to be real views from nature — representations of real places. Topography then referred to a way of knowing and understanding a place as it would have appeared to the local inhabitants, and not to tourists looking for romantic or sublime landscapes. The value of topography is that it is a way of knowing and understanding a particular place as opposed to a landscapes painted by true artists with claims to genius. Only the latter was landscape art to be collected by the art gallery, whilst the former (mere topographics) was judged to be inferior and to be archived in the library.
The New Topographics interest in showing the altering landscape of the present time means considering the environmental undercurrent to be important in Australia, given the emergence of environmental philosophy with Richard and Val Routley’s The Fight for the Forests (1975). The subtitle of the book was The takeover of Australian forests for pines, wood chips and intensive forestry.
The Routleys identified a ‘wood production ideology’ of the forest industries and the state forest services; an ideology focused on providing cheap wood for private industry and with a determination for Australia to become a large woodchip exporter. The Routley’s highlighted the clearing of “useless” native forests to plant the pine trees, and the clear-felling of native forests in order to export woodchips. Nature (native forests) was framed as available for our unconstrained use and was reduced to being a mere resource. In this part of SA the trees had been cleared for grazing and agriculture.
I was becoming aware how the history of the Enlightenment was premised on the mastery of nature. Thus Val Plumwood in her 1993 Feminism and the Mastery of Nature argued that human/nature dualism is a western-based cultural formation going back thousands of years that sees the essentially human as part of a radically separate order of reason, mind, or consciousness, set apart from the lower order that comprises the body, the woman, the animal and the pre-human. Human/nature dualism conceives the human as not only superior to, but as different in kind, from the non-human.
Plumwood argued that the mastery of nature was premised on a Cartesian mind body dualism that leads to the subordination of the natural, mechanistic sphere to the rational, spiritual sphere (consciousness) associated with (male) humanity. On the one side of this dualism we set ourselves sharply apart from everything else as essentially mindful beings. On the other side we get the concept of nature as dead matter, all elements of mind and intelligence having been contracted to the human. Non-human forms are reduced to ‘mere matter’, emptied of agency, spirit and intelligence.
The human/nature relation as a dualism explained many of the problematic features of Australia’s treatment of nature which underlie the emerging environmental crisis. If the New Topographics exhibition can be understood as a catalyst of a transnational movement, then the ‘topographical’ perspective that developed in different centers independent of each other with various time-lags between them, was being shaped by different players.
How did the topographic perspective of the ‘man-altered landscape’ develop in Australia I wondered?
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