“The city is a fact in nature, like a cave, a run of mackerel or an ant-heap. But it is also a conscious work of art, and it holds within its communal framework many simpler and more personal forms of art. Mind takes form in the city; and in turn, urban forms condition mind.”
Lewis Mumford; The City in History
There are really only two ways to photograph cities. One is to live in one for some time; the other is to pass through. Both approaches have their advantages and both ultimately fail. The long term resident begins to see the city in increasingly smaller detail and the significant aspects become more personal. The problem occurs when despite the most stringent documentation, the viewer loses sight of the city. What is iconic for the photographer needs to be interpreted by the viewers and if they get it wrong then it turns into a debate over who exactly is missing the point. Short term visitors are much more likely to photograph the landmarks that represent the city. The problem here is that photographs that include the Eiffel Tower or the Empire State Building are in danger of becoming photographs of them. They tend to dominate the image the way loud drunks who claim to know everything do a conversation. And we’re always left wanting more. Yes, we know we’re in Paris; now where’s the real city?
Photographing the idea of cities would appear to be a lot easier given there are universal elements that define them. One is architecture; size matters but also the relationship between buildings and space. The activity of traffic and crowds, perspective and scale and the symmetry of the elements in the composition make it apparent that the photograph is of a city not simply a large town. It’s possible to glance at a photograph of a street scene and gauge the size and density of the city’s population. Still, it is an elusive subject.
This photograph of Paris comes from an album of early Kodak snaps taken in 1896 by an unknown photographer. More of the photographs can be seen here at Luminous Lint. Possibly the photographer had recently bought the new Kodak Brownie and was testing it out but what is most obvious from the album is that he or she set out to document the city, which is to say the various elements that had particular significance. That included a few landmarks but also obscure side streets and people going about their private business. This approach is rare in the world of amateur snapshots. In most snapshot albums the city tends to form the backdrop. Few amateurs saw it as a subject in itself.
That was left to professionals, who tended to be thinking of their clients more than their personal response. For the few that did have a personal response it was usually political. With some notable exceptions (Marville, Atget), the best photographs of cities from the late 19th century are of the slums, areas the better off found it easy to avoid so they were always something of a revelation. By the 1920s, when photographers had discovered the joys of radical perspective, and architects were envisioning the possibilities of the vertical city, social conscience took a back seat, or at least it was abstracted into the general idea that the city could be designed to solve social problems. Photographers like Berenice Abbott looked for chance visual patterns and assumed meaning could be extracted from them. The Second World War put an end to that. Photographers stopped trying to represent the city by pointing their cameras up or down and went back to documenting the street at eye level. To them it was the inhabitants rather than the structures that defined the city. By the 1980s the response to the city had become personal. Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency isn’t explicitly about New York but you instinctively know the photographs don’t belong anywhere else. The city has always been a fluid and elusive subject. A history of the city in photography becomes a history of the medium itself. The two are inextricable because one has tracked our changing relationship with the other.
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