In 1955, in a special issue of the English monthly magazine Architectural Review (AR), writer Ian Nairn coined the term ‘subtopia’ to describe the anodyne uniformity of suburban development and the isolationist lifestyle that it represented. The visual emblem of this critique – used widely by many of Nairn’s contemporaries in shorter features in the AR, but foregrounded in this issue – was a distinctive kind of image of the suburban landscape in which the photographic foreground was given over almost entirely to the asphalted surface of the road. Nairn’s photographs, and those of many of his contemporaries at AR, follow 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 later, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, the New Topographics exhibition brought public (and later, worldwide) attention to a group of photographers producing pictures that drew on a remarkably similar idiom. Though working decades apart under very different circumstances, both Nairn and the photographers in the NT exhibition were concerned with the way that landscape – as both terrain and concept – was undergoing rapid transition from an ostensibly natural space into one that was explicitly shaped by human activity.
Faced with the challenge of representing a landscape increasingly concerned with something other than human living, both groups of photographers confronted the viewer with images that resisted conventional forms of visual and affective engagement. The essay considers the complexity of this process, reflecting on boredom as both the subject and substance of these landscapes, and on the different affective ecologies that it describes. It uncovers
striking affinities in the way that both groups of photographers called upon boredom as a structural and affective device for investigating the existential voids created by capital, and into which capital introduced itself as an antidote. Latent in both the AR and the New Topographics work – though seldom expressed clearly as such – was a response to the reshaping of the landscape by global capital flows.