Topographic History

Matthew Israel
Jan 29, 2013 8:25PM

One of the significant contributions of 17th-century Dutch Landscape paintings is the type of perspective seen in van Ruysdael’s work: low and panoramic and with a horizon line that falls way below the middle of the picture. Such pictures presented the viewer the world as seen and experienced in a single view, rather than one imagined or pieced together from several views—which was characteristic of earlier landscape works. The sky also becomes the dominant compositional element. Most often such views contained scenes of everyday life; this painting, for example, features a day of skating and sleigh rides on iced-over rivers, which in many Dutch towns became a major meeting place during the winter season.

This particular perspective of the world was highly influential on later artists, such as J.M.W. Turner, John Constable and Caspar David Friedrich, as well as contemporary photographers. In brief, such a point of view has been employed to, at times, counter what is conceived as a subjective viewpoint (particularly in photography). In this way, such a perspective seems to suggest a more objective view of the world, and thus a departure from a specific human, emotional (i.e. subjective) perspective. The prioritization of the sky and diminution of man has also been employed to visualize religious visions, supernatural forces, or the sublime. 

In terms of contemporary photography, the New Topographics were celebrated for such compositions in the 1970s. Their practices have been particularly influential through Bernd and Hilla Becher, and via many of their students, such as Andreas Gursky (whose work is seen at right) and Thomas Struth, and then, through the many of the contemporary photographers of the 1990s and 2000s who were influenced by them. 

Matthew Israel