What is the attraction of New Topographic aesthetics?

Up to now I thought I was attracted to the New Topographics photographers, such as Robert Adam’s and Frank Gohlke, because I enjoyed the aesthetic of their tract house images. Perhaps it is the bright but flat light, the quietness, the geometry if the human constructs set against the natural landscape that form a kind of accidental beauty. However, I am now having second thoughts. The following images come to mind.

New Housing Development, Benbrook, Texas 1963 by Frank Gohlke
Colorado Springs, 1968 by Robert Adams

The more I delve into my photographic inspirations, and having discovered the ubiquity of metaphors for Power, Subordination, Pathos and Monumentality in my images, I am not so sure about the attraction being purely visual. The images above actually reflect my memories of childhood. Moving towns several times and always to a brand-new house, on an incomplete estate with no infrastructure of shops or schools nearby, Frank Gohlke’s image of a sterile, but perfect (in the eyes of 1960’s aspirational adults) really strikes home as an impression of my childhood.

The Robert Adams image of a woman in a house reminds me of my mother at that time. The hairstyle is exactly right but the impression of her being trapped in this cage of an “ideal home” is also very familiar.

The use of Black and White (B&W) photography, whilst the norm in the 1960’s, is also quite appropriate to the lack of colour in life on such an estate and to the binary of B&W, right or wrong, being the only possible conditions and uniformity is a given.

These are not warm, welcoming homes. They are more “Space” than “Place” (Heidegger 1971)

The next 2 images are both by Robert Adams, from his book “Prairie” (Adams, 1978)

Genoa 1970 by Robert Adams                                      
Thurman 1969 by Robert Adams

Such scenes above are far more attractive, to me, as locations to live. Whereas Golke’s “New Housing Estate” appears to be an endless repetition of the same clinical scheme, “Genoa” entices you to go beyond the end of the street. There is a world out there to be explored. The street itself is a little chaotic with its well established but untrimmed trees and randomly parked cars, so Genoa has humanity and looks like a “Place” not just a “Space”.

Then there is “Thurman” by Adams. This is not a clinical, sterile house. It is a practical but messy arrangement of utilities for living. It feels like a home.

Both these images give the impression of being warm, welcoming places to live where shades of grey may be possible, not just black and white.


Adams R. Prairie, The Denver Art Museum, 1978

Heidegger M. Building Dwelling Thinking, from Poetry, Language, Thought, (translated by Hofstadter A.) Harper Colophon Book, New York, 1971