It is said that a horizontal line drawn across the center of a canvas is enough to identify an image as a landscape. In the latter half of the twentieth century, a similarly minimal approach was shared by two very different groups of image-makers – some of them working for the English architectural press in the 1950s, others exhibiting as photographic artists in America in the 1970s. Though working decades apart under very different circumstances, both groups were concerned with the way that the concept of landscape was being transformed from a ‘natural’ space into one that was explicitly shaped by human activity.
In 1955, in a special issue of the magazine The Architectural Review, writer Ian Nairn coined the term ‘subtopia’ to describe the banality and isolationism of suburban life. Spreading out unchecked across the countryside, subtopia cloaked the English landscape in an undifferentiated sprawl – an organism with a life of its own, its life-force drawn from the desires of a newly consumer-obsessed middle class. Nairn’s photographs, and those of many of his contemporaries at The Architectural Review followed a strikingly consistent formula: the bottom half of the image an empty expanse of tarmac, with a scattering of dwellings and a blank sky above.
Twenty years after Nairn’s article appeared, the 1975 New Topographics exhibition put a collection of similarly featureless landscapes before an unsuspecting American public. In image after image of industrial parks, anonymous main streets and housing developments, the gaze is met by empty foregrounds and nondescript architecture – the increasingly ubiquitous infrastructure of the American dream.
Both sets of landscape images failed, quite deliberately, to do what the photograph was conventionally understood to do – to confer upon even the most banal subject matter the status of something more than itself. Though taken at different times and under different circumstances, the subject of these photographs is existential boredom, and boredom is also their mode of reception.