Photographing suburban America: New Topographics / Wim Wenders

In the 1975 Exhbition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-altered landscape, photographers started showing an interest in the banal, the creeping uniformed landscapes of suburban America. Previously, landscape photography was aimed at showing the beauty of Nature. The New Topographics had an interest in social comment, irony for some of them. An interesting feature of the show was that all the photographers in it were linked to academia (students or teachers) whereas documentary and landscape photography previously had a long tradition of self taught artists. This show may be seen as the start of a new photographic tradition, still very important in contemporary photography where the subject matter is all and aestheticism either irrelevant or actively avoided. “Conceptual Photography” or “Essay Photography”, one may call this tradition.

Most of the photographs were black and white and had a rather bland, clinical look, probably due to the flat lighting.

Robert Adams, Tract House, 1974.
Robert Adams, Tract House, 1974.

Robert Adams, Colorado Springs, 1968.
Robert Adams, Colorado Springs, 1968.

Henry Wessel, Tucson, Arizona, 1974.
Henry Wessel, Tucson, Arizona, 1974.

However, other photographs, while still depicting bland, anonymous places, have a more dramatic or eerie lighting that give the pictures at atmosphere of non specified creepiness, of impending doom, of surreality. As though too much bland realism crossed over to the point where the image is not believable anymore, where we get the feeling that we are gazing at a too-perfect movie set.

John Schott, El Nino Motel, 1973.
John Schott, El Nino Motel, 1973.

Robert Adams, Mobile Homes, 1973.
Robert Adams, Mobile Homes, 1973.

I particularly like the images of Stephen Shore. I like the way the technicolor feel of his pictures evocates Hollywood and the American Dream, while his subject matter reminds how grim it turned for most.

Stephen Shore, 2nd Street East and South Main Street, Kalispell, Montana (August 22, 1974).

Stephen Shore, Alley, Presidio, Texas (February 21, 1975).

His images remind me of the photographs and films of Wim Wenders. I feel in them the same love/hate fascination with the archetypes of the American Dream. “Americans have colonialised our subconscious” says Bruno Winter (Rüdiger Vogler) in “Kings of the Roads”. They look a bit like paintings by Edgar Hopper too.

I think what catches my eye in a documentary photograph is a cinematic look with dramatic lighting and colours that creates an ambiguous contrast with the unstaged nature of the scene.

Donovan Wylie: Maze Prison (Long Kesh/ H-Blocks)

In his series “Maze”, Donovan Wylie was granted exclusive access to the Maze Prison when it was decommissioned in 2003. Paramilitary prisoners of both side were incarcerated in the Maze, sorted into H Blocks depending on their affiliation, and this is where the Blanket and Dirty Protests of the late 1970s and the 1981 Hunger Strike took place. The hospital, where prisoners on Hunger Strike died, and some of the H Blocks are protected buildings but other parts of the prison have been demolished, in order to build a football stadium among other things. However, in January 2009, this “redevelopment” plan was cancelled and what will become of the Maze site remains uncertain and subject to controversy. It is possible that Donovan Wylie’s photographs are the last memorials of the events who took place there.

I’ve done a bit of research ( source 1, source 2, source 3). From one source, it seems “The Maze” was originally called “Long Kesh Prison” and renamed to “H.M.P. Maze” in the mid 1980s in order to distantiate it from the brutal treatment of prisoners in the 1970s and early 1980s that tainted the name “Long Kesh” in collective memory. It is possible that the specific name that individual pick to refer to the prison may imply their political views on the conflict. From another source, it seems the prison was renamed from “Long Kesh” to “Maze” in 1976, at the same time as the prisoners lost their Special Category status (political prisoner as opposed to common criminal) and the H-Blocks built to replace former huts. I am unsure of the date the renaming took place but different sources seem to corroborate that using different names may have political connotations. However, given the sensitivity and controversy of the whole subject, I cannot be sure of the reliability of specific sources and do not have enough insider knowledge to guarantee the degree of truth of information I find.

This research made me more aware of the difficulty of creating artworks on a politically sensitive subject, because every little detail such as the choice of a word can spark unplanned controversy. I feel I must be very careful when creating artwork on a political theme, such as my Disciplinary Institutions series. An artist making political art must be very careful to thoroughly research their subject because if they unwittingly say something inacurate, or something that implies political leaning they were not aware of and willingly trying to convey, they can make a fool of themselves or even be used as an unwitting pawn in a political quarrel.


Identical cells painted various colors. I do not know if colors were specific to different H Blocks and, if this was the case, whether they had a political symbolism or were random.

The same place in the process of being demolished.

In an interview, Donovan Wylie comments on how he interpretated the place, its atmosphere and function photographically: “the trick of the project was to try to understand the psychology of it. The building is a hybrid between a civilian prison and a military prison, but the whole thing is a machine and every part in it is a component and it all works together. Once you understand it as a machine, you can deconstruct it as a machine, photographically. Then you fully understand the shape of it, why it doesn’t have any steps, why there are so many layers to it, why it is so uniform.”

Mark Ellis: Protect and survive

In his series “Protect and Survive” (this was the name of a 1980s UK government leaflet telling people what to do in case of a nuclear attack), Mark Ellis takes pictures of bunkers that would have been used if a nuclear attack between the UK and USSR had happened during the cold war.

I love how the documentary nature of the photographs is contrasted with the very cinematic look of them, mixing dramatic shadows and almost technicolor tones. This is the look I aim to achieve in my Ghost House series because I love the ambiguity it creates, causing to viewer to wonder whether this is documentary or staged fiction, and to feel awkward about this uncertainty. I think this look is a particularly clever choice is Ellis’ series because it touches on the subject of State propaganda, a domain where the ambiguity between truth and lies may lead to the most serious and deadly consequences.

Paul Seawright: Invisible cities / Oublier

In his series Invisible cities (titled after a book by Italo Calvino), Paul Seawright explores the peripheries of African cities, the “murky borderlands” which tend to develop outside of official control and where people must constantly adapt to the environment in order to survive in places of lawlessness.

In his series Oublier (the verb “to forget” in French, even though his website states that the title comes from “Oubliettes”, which were undergroung jails where people were left abandoned in the medieval times), he photographs the attics of public buildings. These pictures symbolise the border between private and public space, past and present, what is remembered and forgotten within collective memory.

Lars Tunbjörk and small town Sweden

Lars Tunbjörk is a Swedish photographer interested in showing the absurdity of contemporary life. He seems to be particularly interested in new built middle class estates, kitsch interiors, vulgar behaviour and strange behaviours from very normal looking people. Images relating to this last interest remind me of his compatriot filmmaker Roy Andersson. His photographs are brightly coloured and apparently straightforward, yet they have a deeply frightening element. Possibly because they look like commercial photography gone horribly wrong. As though some soulless advertising photographer got a high paid contract to sell you the marvels of a brand spanking new “traditional” home or a night out at your local finest chain pub, but got a nervous breakdown in the middle of the shoot and could not keep lying … I really like his work because his attitude (I mean, his attitude as I perceive it through his images) is without mercy, yet he does not seem to look down on his subjects. To me, it is as though he was looking straight into the eyes of his intellectual middle class photography gallery audience and telling them “They are pathetic, aren’t they ? You’re much better, aren’t you ? Are you ? Are you ?…” To me, the way he looks at things is brave. It takes a lot of courage to obsessively stare at ugliness and pettiness, not from higher up but, on the contrary, with a level gaze …

“I love Boras” (1995) is named after the small town where he was born, yet the photographs were taken all over Sweden. They are outtakes from his other series “A country beside itself” that documented the influence of the post-thatcherite mentality of the early 90s as it reached social-democratic Sweden. Those outtakes were judged too frightening/strange/silly to figure in the more traditional documentary main series.

“Home” (2001) explores a newly built suburban estate frighteningly perfect and empty of any human presence. He first went back to his mother’s home where he grew up to photograph it. The atmosphere of the neighbourhood unsettled him and prompted him to photograph similar places all over Sweden.

“Kiruna” (2008) presents a city in the remote far north of Sweden.

“Winter” (2008) shows exteriors and interiors of Sweden during the long dark winter, conveying the wave of depression that sweeps over the country, and the attempts people make to cope with it.

Disciplinary Institutions

In “Discipline and Punish”, Michel Foucault defines “ Disciplinary Institutions” (Institutions Disciplinaires) as places where people are made useful and obedient through the repression of any deviation from the norm. Foucault argues that, in medieval times, repression was focused on punishing one particular crime after it had been committed. The punishment was often bloody and spectacular and symbolically linked to the original crime (for example, cutting the hands of a thief). The tortures were staged as spectacular public displays in order to demonstrate the almighty power of the King and keep the people subdued. From the Renaissance onwards, however, the State turned to another strategy of moving repression inside closed walls, thus giving its power a menacing aura of secrecy. This new strategy had the additional advantage of removing the risk of the people taking the side of the condemned person during a particularly cruel public torture. At the same time as repression was moved inside closed walls, the forms it took were diversified. Foucault calls the various places where various forms of repression take place “Institutions Disciplinaires” (“Disciplinary Institutions”). These institutions include the prison, where the initial goal of punishing an already committed crime carries on. But they also include places where people are sent before they have ever committed any wrongdoing, such as schools, mental asylums or military training places. People are sent there “preventively” in order to nip in the bud any temptation or propensity to deviate from the behavioral norms decided by the State.

In my “Disciplinary Institutions” photographic series, I explore places used to make undesirable and/or helpless people disappear discretely such as Magdalene convents (used to imprison women), mental asylums and workhouses. Rather than purely documenting the buildings, I am interested in showing how the long gone inmates keep imprinting these places long after they are dead, and the malevolent aura still cast by those buildings in collective memory.

During my exploration, I encountered local teenagers who guided me in the sites and told me urban legends about them. I was fascinated by the aura of malevolence still cast by these buildings, despite them being closed for so long, and the way the teenagers associated them with some very contemporary anxieties, such as the fear of teenage pregnancy (associated with Magdalene laundries) or the fear of being labelled a “weirdo” (associated with mental asylums). Somehow all the horrible stories associated with these buildings were all related to the violence that the adults enforce on the young to make them obey social norms: by locking up young girls considered in danger of promiscuity in Magdalene laundries, or young people with too original ideas in insane asylums. It is as though those buildings had a cathartic function: they were a powerful symbols onto which the teenagers could hook their fears about their own place in society. Yet, at the same time these abandoned “no man’s lands”, out of reach of adult control, were also socialising landmarks where teenagers could meet and be themselves without the fear of adult judgement.

Disciplinary Institutions slideshow

Jerry Uelsmann

I’ve discovered randomly American photographer Jerry Uelsmann. Active from the 1960s till today, he creates photomontages by overprinting several negatives in the darkroom using up to a dozen enlargers simultaneously, long before digital cameras and Photoshop made such montages much quicker and easier.

Below are my favourite pictures, the ones that look similar to Surrealists photomontages by Dora Maar or paintings by Paul Delvaux. I’ve researched interviews but he does not comment on a particular interest for houses.

An idea of home – The Photographer’s gallery

I’ve had 2 pictures selected for The Photographer’s Gallery “An idea of home” public call on flickr, responding to Jim Goldberg’s Open See exhibition about the experience of migrants.

One shows a ghost house with lots of booze, the other a glimpse of my grandma’s taste in interior design and an experience of time travel in the 50s … (pics at page 7 and 13)

Just before, I was listening to Alan Ball’s commentaries about the title sequence of his new TV series “True Blood”. The sequence, made by the agency Digital Kitchen who already made the beautiful credits for “6 feet under”, shows short clips taken from the daily life of the south of the USA, in particular scenes of “religious fervor” and going out to the bar to get drunk (and have sex). Alan Ball said that these 2 actions, usually considered opposed from a moral point of view, are in facts 2 manifestations of human desire to escape and transcend daily life. His opinion reminded me of how paraphernalia of catholicism and alcoholism happily coexist in the ghost houses I’ve explored in Ireland. And maybe it echoes too in the uncanny way in which my grandma placed some Church blessed palm (boxtree really) twigs alongside a orange plastic toy depicting a little boy that pisses …


Dérive in Blainville Crevon, birthplace of Marcel Duchamp, in search of oddities.

DadaDérive slideshow

Does anybody know why it does not work to copy the html to embed a flicker slideshow on wordpress ? wordpress just deletes the html (while in html edit mode …)

Also does anybody know which photo website geotags on google maps ? I have seen geotagged pictures while looking at maps on google but flickr only geotags via yahoo maps (obviously it’s the same company).

Thank you !

“Cellar Door”

Pictures taken from my grandmother’s cellar door. The title refers to the film “Donnie Darko” where Drew Barrymore’s character explains that “cellar door” is the most beautifully sounding phrase in the english language.

Cellar Door 1

Cellar Door 2