Fifty years after The Americans of Robert Frank, and practically at the same time as the reconstruction of the then pioneering exhibition “New Topographics": Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape” (George Eastman House, Rochester, 1975), FotoMuseum, through the exhibition American Documents, offers a comprehensive overview of the documentary trends in American photography from the 1970 until now. The work of Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus, Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams, Henry Wessel, Nicholas Nixon, Stephen Shore, Martha Rossler, Judith Joy Ross, Jerry Thomson, Larry Sultan, Mike Mandel and Mitch Epstein, amongst others, is preceded by exemplary images of Walker Evans and Robert Frank, two figure heads who, each in their own way, ushered in this prominent movement.
All these photographers highlight a social issue that is still very topical today. Rampant industrialization and urbanization fed by an excessive consumption drive left a profound mark on both the American landscape and American society during the second half of the previous century. At the same time, these developments formed the breeding-ground for a critical countermovement. It is against this backdrop that a new photographic picture language developed that abruptly abandoned the idealizing views of previous generations. Through an apparent neutral, 'documentary' representation of everyday reality, it confronted the audience in a critical manner with key social and political issues. Thanks to its serial approach and clear formulation, this type of photography fit in perfectly with the then conceptual and minimalist trends in plastic arts, which earned it a lot of attention from the art world as well.
Besides these historic works, two recent series are also on display in Belgium for the first time: Homeland (2007-2009) by Larry Sultan, and American Power (2009) by Mitch Epstein. Both series of photographs combine especially portraits and landscapes.
Homeland addresses the issue of illegal immigration near the US border. The title is a reference to the US Department of Homeland Security. Sultan serves up a series of “picturesque” and “idyllic” photos of American suburbs where illegal workers and day-labourers hang around on the doorstep of an inaccessible Land of Promise.
In American Power Epstein takes a close look at the United States, taking the dual meaning of the term 'power' (power/energy) as the key word. A journey across the country resulted in a fascinating, but also terrifying photographic state of affairs. He photographed plants, mines, nuclear power plants, wind parks and the devastated landscape after the passage of hurricane Katrina. Through this project, the artist set out to gain insight into the interaction between energy production and consumption, between industrial corporatism and increasing environmental issues. This way, the transformation of the landscape reflects a social order.
They confront us with a political topicality that raises pressing questions and leaves no one untouched. Homeland zeroes in on the issue of illegal immigration near the US border. Sultan serves up a series of “picturesque” and “idyllic” photos of American suburbs populated by illegal workers and day-labourers who hang around on the doorstep of an inaccessible Land of Promise.
Mitch Epstein uses the term power (in both senses) as a key word to question the position of power of the United States. The photos of plants, mines, nuclear power plants and wind parks not only make for a fascinating photographic account, but at the same time also paint a frightening picture of the world we live in.