The 1975 New Topographics exhibition has been inscribed into the history of photography as a starting point to which nearly all visually cognate practices can be traced back. This held back more subtle and nuanced readings of much English and European work of the same era, particularly in the English-language press. Set in a more extended historical and geographical context, the work exhibited in New Topographics can be understood as part of a wider process of photographic exploration that took place alongside shifting patterns of production and consumption that transformed the global landscape in the decades following the Second World War.
The exhibition also set out a specific position regarding the nature of topographic photography itself. Although New Topographics did not take an explicitly critical stance vis-a-vis landscape, one of its most enduring legacies has been the emergence of a ‘new topographics’ aesthetic that is understood as critically engaged simply by virtue of its distanced, deadpan style. To argue that particular photographers work in the topographic mode is thus to overlook the socio-political and geographical specificities of the places they represent, in favour of formal similarities.
This paper examines Gabriele Basilico’s first project, Milano. Ritratti di fabbriche (1978–80), through the photographs themselves, the context out of which they emerged, their presentation in book form, and Basilico’s own approach to the environments in which he photographed. I argue that Milano. Ritratti di fabbriche shares less than we might assume with the New Topographics work. Rather, it embodies a way of understanding and representing space as topological: heterogeneous and fluid, composed of multiple and often contradictory objects, processes and agents.