So, do we want to move back to the suburbs or not? Because I’ve been getting mixed signals lately, and I’m trying to think through what might or might not be the opening salvo in a renaissance of suburban longing (if there has already been a full-blown renaissance in suburban longing, please someone fill me in).
Arcade Fire’s 2010 widely acclaimed album The Suburbs pines for an idyllic return to the simplicity of low expectations, wide lawns, and strip malls. I cannot, for the life of me, figure out if they’re being serious or not. But I thought it might be interesting to consider the album next to the 1975 photography exhibition “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape,” if only because it takes as its subject the very scenes of 1970’s suburban life that Arcade Fire sings so moonily about (incidentally, a new collection of essays to be published by the U of C Press in February reconsiders the show, so I’m trying to get my shots in here quickly)
The images in “New Topographics” portrayed trailer parks, decrepit factories in the exurbs, blank urban spaces, and parking lots. Though it would eventually become one of the most influential bodies of landscape photography in history, the show flopped when it first appeared. The images marked a major departure from previous modes of photography in their simple descriptions of scenes. They did not seem to overtly judge, and yet there was an undeniable snarkiness to the pictures. Audiences seemed not to “get it.” It didn’t help that the Eastman House was featuring the work of university-trained photographers–a maligned crop of academic practitioners that allegedly lacked the natural talent thought to be necessary for authentic picture-making.My juxtaposition of “New Topographics” with Arcade Fire’s 2010 album The Suburbs is a bit tongue in cheek, though I still really can’t tell if the group is actually pining for the suburbs or not. I can’t tell who is being sincere and who is being ironic. Is Arcade Fire genuinely longing for the suburbs, or are they satirizing the desire for convertibles and freshly paved roads? Are the photographers in “New Topographics” genuinely trying to do documentary work, or does their rendering of empty “man-altered” landscapes nakedly satirize or criticize the spaces they depict?
I really don’t know. I just wanted to type a few words about both, regardless…