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The Periphery as Frontier - photographing the edge of inhabitation, from Timothy O'Sullivan to Alec Soth


The periphery is most often seen as the poor relation of the centre: potential diminishes the further
towards the edge and away from the middle one travels. There is however another
reading of the periphery which sees it as the leading edge of a new wave of
development's as the frontier. In America, between the late sixties and early seventies, the suburban edge seemed to supplant the settled centre as the favoured subject and setting for photographers. The era of street photography yields to an age of typological and topographic survey,
much of it collected in the seminal New Topographics exhibition of 1975. For the photographers included in that exhibition, Stephen Shore, Lewis Baltz and Robert Adams among them, the edges
of urban settlements were now the key site of a changing American identity. In
publications such as The New West (1974) Robert Adams showed the rapidity with which cheap development was encroaching on previously undeveloped landscape. Adams' pictures, classically
composed and finely printed, were consciously positioned within a tradition of frontier photography that stretched back to the 19th-century pioneers William Henry Jackson and Timothy O'Sullivan. Signs of contemporary inhabitation were deliberately incorporated in O'Sullivan's images as a
counterpoint the epic grandeur of the landscape. This juxtaposition of settler and landscape, in advance of any equilibrium being discovered between the two, has been a continuing trope in photography since. A generation after Adams, Joel Sternfeld's seminal American Prospects (1987) included many images in which recent developments and their inhabitants sit slightly awkwardly against an epic backdrop.  More recently again, Sternfeld's pupil Alec Soth has made projects which combine landscape, narrative imagery and portraiture to make visible a new peripheral America.
This paper will conclude with an examination of Soth's work from his first book Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004) to his most recent project Broken Manual (2011) as a continuation
of the tradition of looking for signs of life at the edge. Although he stretches the boundaries of photographic practice and although he seeks his subject matter at the edges of inhabitation in America, in the final analysis, Soth remains firmly within the traditions of American photography and keeps faith in the idea of the 'frontier spirit'. Images: Timothy O'Sullivan: Anasazi ruins (the 'White House'), Canyon de Chelly, Arizona, 1873; Robert Adams, Colorado
Springs, Colorado, 1968; Alec Soth, Utah, 2010

Suggested citation:

. () The Periphery as Frontier - photographing the edge of inhabitation, from Timothy O'Sullivan to Alec Soth [Online]. Available from: [Accessed: 21st September 2019].


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