The 1975 New Topographics exhibition marked a profound shift in the practice of landscape photography. Within the space of a few years, images celebrating national identity and unspoiled nature gave way to darker and more critical examinations of the ‘man-altered’ landscape. The approach that has since come to be known generically as the ‘new topographics’ aesthetic registers a significant ontological shift – one in which nature is displaced as humanity’s other, and replaced by an increasingly malign and threatening sphere of technology. The human-altered landscape is still routinely depicted in terms of contamination, unregulated development and ecological ruin.
More recently, however, a more subtle but no less significant shift has taken place. Technological development is now linked decisively to the threat of global environmental catastrophe, and collective awareness of the dangers posed by this development has become the focus of a category of recent landscape photography – and an accompanying discourse – that no longer simply documents the state of the man-altered landscape in the present, but reflects anxiously on its future. In this essay, I suggest that this preoccupation with the future can be understood within the context of globalization and global risk theory. Contemporary landscape photography increasingly engages with perceptions of technologically-produced environmental risk, posing possible environmental catastrophe as a globally shared social and political reality. Such work shapes the perception of global risk in the present by giving visible and palpable form to an unknowable future.