With new topographics, the subject of a landscape photo doesn’t have to be exceptional to be worthwhile. Explore how to find inspiration in the mundane with tips from seven established landscape photographers.
It’s easy to take a great picture of a beautiful destination, but what about places that don’t seem interesting at first glance? Is it possible to take an unforgettable shot of an industrial plant, a small-town street corner, a trailer park, or a motel somewhere along the empty highway? In 1975, a group of photographers proved that the answer to that question was a resounding “yes!”
It all started with a show called New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, curated by William Jenkins at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. In contrast to the dramatic landscapes museum and gallery visitors expected, this exhibition included 168 photographs of urban and suburban locations that seemed totally mundane. “Some people found it unutterably boring,” Frank Gohlke, one of the exhibiting photographers, told the LA Times years later. “Some people couldn’t believe we were serious, taking pictures of this stuff.”
Despite the mainstream public’s initial reluctance to accept the concept of New Topographics, these artists reshaped the world of photography forever. These days, Instagram is full of surprising and original photos of everyday locations. About a quarter of a million photos are currently tagged #newtopographics on that platform alone. New Topographics is more than a trend, and documenting the “man-altered landscape” goes deeper than aesthetics. What we build reveals who we are as a culture and a community.
We asked seven photographers to tell us about finding beauty or intrigue in places other people might overlook. Some directly recall the New Topographics photographers, while others veer into surprising, modern territory; nevertheless, they all speak to our ability to discover meaning in the unexpected. Read on to hear their stories and learn some of their tips for making similar photos of your own.
1. “The best advice I can give to any photographer is to keep exploring.”
Image by Jake Hukee. Gear: Nikon D800 camera, Sigma 35mm F1.4 DG lens. Settings: Exposure 1/200 sec; f7.1; ISO 800.
What’s the story behind this photo?
I took this photo days before the 2016 Presidential Election in the middle of Iowa. I love history, and I think that photographing decaying buildings/structures is a method of preserving the past. My grandfather taught me to always know where you come from.
To some, this may just be a photo of a horse trailer in the middle of a field in Middle America, but given the timing, it recounts a story about the polarizing mindset of America. It also reveals my beliefs and my own ignorance.
Living in a liberal, progressive neighborhood in a big city, I never met an outspoken Trump supporter during the 2016 election. The message coming from popular media was that Trump supporters hid in the shadows of big business and in the golden abyss of crops and tractors. The latter group was disregarded, unheard from by newscasts.
Like half of the country, I was flabbergasted to hear Donald Trump was to be the 45th president of the US. But just days before the election, I discovered the truth of our country’s mindset on a foggy farm in Iowa. Still, I chose to overlook the true message that was boldly painted in thick white strokes: The country is divided.
I drove around back highways for three hours, and I was actually heading home before I found this trailer. I’m thankful that I found this scene. I’m thankful to wake up and to remember to engage with folks that aren’t in my bubble of the world. Without challenging myself to explore and shoot, I would have never found this farm. Before I took this photo, I thought people planning on voting for Trump were fools. After reexamining this photo after the 2016 election, I remember a vote doesn’t epitomize who an individual is.