Robert Harding Pittman: Anonymization

Ikea, A-1 Autobahn © Robert Harding Pittman, Courtesy of the Artist

Ikea, A-1 Autobahn | Kamen, Germany © Robert Harding Pittman, Courtesy of the Artist.

2015 marks four decades since William Jenkins’s curated the hugely influential exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape at George Eastman House in New York. Not only was the show revolutionary in terms of challenging traditional values and aesthetics within landscape photography, but it was also highly significant within the broader narrative of the documentary image and art photography [1]. The exhibition’s genesis is largely credited to the artist’s books of Ed Ruscha, in particular Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations (1963), which documented a drive of over a thousand miles from Los Angeles to Oaklahoma City [2]. Ruscha’s typology conveyed not only the monotony of this kind of journey, but it remarked upon the corporatization of the American landscape and drew attention to the significance of the relationship between it and the automobile.

The New Topographics exhibition was also contextualized through the images made by the photographers who were part of nineteenth century geological surveys, as well as the documentation of major engineering projects of the time. The exact job description of the photographers such as Carleton Watkins, Timothy O’Sullivan and William Henry Jackson – what their exact purpose within the expeditions was and what they were expected to supply – is unclear, and this uncertainty has perhaps contributed to the allusiveness of their pictures as expressive artefacts. However, their photography has been broadly interpreted, at least in part, as supporting an entrepreneurial attitude towards the uncharted North American landscape – speculating upon how it might be populated and inhabited and commercially exploited.

The photographs within the New Topographics exhibition revealed some of what became of these once ‘wild’ landscapes, approximately one hundred years on. Robert Adams for instance, within his project What We Bought, revealed the suburbanization of the landscape around Denver – soulless commercial buildings and out-of-town shopping precincts marching ever deeper into the Colorado desert [3]. The subjects, themes, and deadpan aesthetics of the works that comprised the New Topographics show continue to inspire and influence contemporary photographic practice: Robert Harding Pittman’s photobook Anonymization exemplifies its influence, notably, the secure place that architecture now has within landscape photography and discourse.

Real de Faula Golf Club | Benidorm, Spain © Robert Harding Pittman, Courtesy of the Artist

Real de Faula Golf Club | Benidorm, Spain © Robert Harding Pittman, Courtesy of the Artist.

Where Adams and his peers were concerned with presenting studies of specific parts of the American landscape, Pittman has survey urban sprawl on a more global scale, the images in his book having been compiled over a decade and encompass his broader research and professional activities around environmentalism. Included in his survey are images from America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. The architecture depicted however is markedly generic: carbon hungry cement rendering and re-enforced concrete create overbearing forms throughout the series and contrast against the mostly arid desert conditions they have been uncompromisingly inserted into.

A stubborn refusal to build and develop in sympathy to the topography and climate is also very apparent throughout the series: extensively irrigated and fertilized lush green lawns and boarders are conspicuously incongruous amongst the sand and dirt in Pittman’s vibrant colour photographs, so saturated and iridescent that they are at times difficult to view – disparaging the utopian ideals that these developments proclaim. As Alison Nordström observes in one of the book’s essays, Pittman’s images are certainly not derivative of the cool, objective, deadpan gaze that typified the visual characteristics of the New Topgraphics: Pittman’s are scalding hot and have a polemic visual quality in contrast to the stoic monochrome images from the 1970s.

Lake Las Vegas Resort | Las Vegas, USA © Robert Harding Pittman, Courtesy of the Artist

Lake Las Vegas Resort | Las Vegas, USA © Robert Harding Pittman, Courtesy of the Artist.

Lewis Baltz showed us that there is of course tremendous visual potential in these kinds of subjects. His images of tract houses in the New Topographics exhibition comprised minimal blocks of grey tones rendered from the buildings’ architectural features. What these kinds of structures lack in nuanced design and individuality they make up for somehow with a distinctly photogenic quality. The visual celebration of mundane forms, geometry and repetition, is a common trend in contemporary photography inherited from the New Topographics [4].

Future Leroy Merlin | Rivas-Madrid, Spain © Robert Harding Pittman, Courtesy of the Artist.

Future Leroy Merlin | Rivas-Madrid, Spain © Robert Harding Pittman, Courtesy of the Artist.

Pittman presents these structures from a variety of distances; sometimes displaying them within the context of the landscapes in which they uncomfortably cohabit, but elsewhere; cropping much closer in and meditating on a landscaping or architectural feature. Perhaps here he is meditating on their vulgarity, or perhaps he is entertaining, for a brief moment, the possibility that they might have virtues.

Interstate 15 | Las Vegas, USA © Robert Harding Pittman, Courtesy of the Artist.

Interstate 15 | Las Vegas, USA © Robert Harding Pittman, Courtesy of the Artist.

Although it might have been tempting for Pittman to underscore his narrative around the increasingly homogenised nature of our suburban architecture by concealing the geographic identification of these locations, he instead (within the Index) provides not only details of where in the world they actually are, but offers extensive information about each development and the specific social and ecological problems associated with them, as well as a host of other points of reference. Similarly – and refreshingly – the monograph essays are chiefly concerned with expanding upon the topics of Pittman’s enquiries rather than the aesthetics of his work. This positions the work on an authoritative footing as activist documentary, articulating a persuasive argument about the urgency of these social, economic, and most importantly, environmental issues.

[1] For an expansive discussion of the exhibition, see Foster-Rice, G. & Rohrbach, J. (2013) Reframing the New Topographics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

[2] For an in depth discussion of this work, see Walker, I. ‘A Kind of “Huh”: The Siting of Twentysix Gasoline Stations’ in Di Bello, P. (2012) The Photobook: From Talbot to Ruscha and Beyond (London: I.B. Tauris). An edited version is available at: http://theibtaurisblog.com/2012/03/12/a-kind-of-a-huh-the-siting-of-twentysix-gasoline-stations/

[3] For another contemporary equivalent, see Hala Elkoussy’s Peripheral project: http://halaelkoussy.com/peripheral-2005?photo=2

[4] Bernd and Hilla Becher, who contributed typologies of industrial architecture and infrastructure to the exhibition, taught at the celebrated Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, and whose students included Thomas Ruff and Andreas Gursky – noted for their deadpan style and systematic visual methodologies.

Anonymization is published by Kehrer Verlag, €28.00

Anonymization was nominated for the Prix Pictet 2014 (under the theme of “Consumption”) and was nominated for the Deutscher Fotobuchpreis

The exhibition of the work continues until July 3rd, 2015 at Spot Photo Works in Hollywood.

Pittman gives further insight into the project and his practice in an interview with Photoparley.

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