Photography and the City Essay


Ever since photography came into general practice, the city has been recognised as a constantly changing subject matter, thus a great deal of importance to the art form. Firstly let’s lightly delve into modernity. Modernity can be traced back to around the seventeenth century, when explained straightforwardly it can be described as the rejection of previous society’s approaches to problem solving and thereby changing the current society’s perspectives. This forces contemporary civilization to adapt and evolve at a constantly increasing momentum.

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Much like today, in the eighteenth through to the nineteen century the panorama was a photograph that many sought after. The photograph above was taken by Charles Chevalier in 1842, at this time he would have used an early panoramic camera, possibly such as the one shown above. David Bate (David Bate (2009). Photography the Key Concepts. Oxford: Berg. 107-108) explains that the panorama ‘offers a kind of mastery to photography and like a cake that is far too large to eat, the panorama is impossible to fully digest. Thus it is satisfying and dissatisfying simultaneously in terms of seeing’. Bate also calls the panorama ‘both picturesque and sublime’.

 


In Graham Clarkes The photograph (Graham Clarke (1997). The Photograph. Oxford : paperbacks. 76) He describes ‘how the camera negotiates between two poles, the vertical and the horizontal. This visual unity and disunity suggests part of a larger dialect as to how the city can be seen; the public and the private, the detailed and the general, the exterior and the interior, the historical and the modern and the permanent and the temporary.’ These perspectives on how we view the city are both interesting and concise. A figure who views the city by wondering the street is known as the ‘Flaneur’. (Graham Clarke (1997). The Photograph. Oxford: paperbacks. 76)

 
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The ‘Flaneur’ can be described as a stroller or a connoisseur of the city’s street life; it was originally Walter Benjamin working from the poetry of Charles Baudelaire whom predominately made this figure of importance to art, literature and photography. In many ways the contemporary ‘Flaneur’ can be seen as the common street photographer. This relates to a very famous street photographer and in many ways the original flanuer of Paris ‘Eugene Atget’.  (Erik Kim. (2013). 6 Lessons Eugene Atget Has Taught Me about Street Photography.

Available: http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2013/09/30/6-lessons-eugene-atget-has-taught-me-about-street-photography/. Last accessed 22 Dec 2014.) 

 

Atget began to photograph Paris in the 1890’s; he focused on the medieval architecture and the street itself. He utilised a large format wooden bellows camera, which produced 18x24cm glass plate prints. One of the reasons Atget’s work didn’t include many people in it was due to the technical limitations of the camera. He found every small detail of the old city’s architecture significant which corresponded to his project to preserve old Paris through his photographs. 
 

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An image of Atget’s that does contain people is a photograph of people viewing the 1911 eclipse in Paris. From this perspective Atget can be said to have preserved the people of Paris as Well.  (Erik Kim. (2013). 6 Lessons Eugene Atget Has Taught Me about Street  Photography

Available: http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2013/09/30/6-lessons-eugene-atget-has-taught-me-about-street-photography/. Last accessed 22 Dec 2014.)

 

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In the book theoretical snapshots (J.J Long, Andrea Nobel and Edward Welch (2008). Theoretical Snapshots. London: Taylor and Francis. 112-113.) Abigail Soloman-Godeau asks weather ‘photography theorists would need to invent Atget if he didn’t already exist? In the essay ‘Canon fodder’ she says ‘Atget is presented in a wealth of guises; as a surrealist Atget, as a primitive Atget, as a documentary Atget, as a modernist Atget and finally as a Marxist Atget. In short she concludes that Atget had become insourced as the author father of the high modernist aesthetic.
 

 

Another photographer who utilised the city of Paris was Brassai (Gyual Halasz) He photographed Paris as the voyeur, only emerging at night to steal illicit images of the city’s interiors. Such as brothels, bars and hotels. He also shot the exteriors of Paris including prostitutes on the street with their clients, which corresponds to Graham Clarks the photograph and how the city can be viewed.  Brassai’s images ‘retain a deep heavy blackness to them’. (Graham Clarke (1997). The Photograph. Oxford: paperbacks. 91-92)

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Alfred Stieglitz’s began to Photograph New York around the 1890’s and he bought his idealism to the city that bordered on the spiritual. Although he had a great passion for the medium and the city, he abandoned photography completely in 1941 due to inner conflicts he faced while trying to create the ideal photograph. Stieglitz was ultimately defeated by the city which he sought to unify, firstly through his abandonment of the medium and secondly the fact that the city outlived him and continues to grow. (Graham Clarke (1997). The Photograph. Oxford: paperbacks. 79-81) The flatiron is one of his definitive images and on the winter’s morning when he captured the image, he was overwhelmed by what he saw. A new America still in it’s prime. In the photograph Stieglitz denudes the building of its ‘solidarity and function as an office’.

Similar to the famous Parisian photographers, Henry Dixon photographed London in the 1870’s and 1880’s. His subject matter displayed a very old London, one that is a world away from the City we know today, though visual links can be drawn in terms of the street. However a lot of the cities architecture either no longer exists, or has been modernised to the point that it is unrecognisable therefore losing its original aesthetic value. His images became widely acknowledged by many photographic societies. Another photographer of London was George Davidson Reid. 

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Alfred Stieglitz’s began to Photograph New York around the 1890’s and he bought his idealism to the city that bordered on the spiritual. Although he had a great passion for the medium and the city, he abandoned photography completely in 1941 due to inner conflicts he faced while trying to create the ideal photograph. Stieglitz was ultimately defeated by the city which he sought to unify, firstly through his abandonment of the medium and secondly the fact that the city outlived him and continues to grow. (Graham Clarke (1997). The Photograph. Oxford: paperbacks. 79-81) The flatiron is one of his definitive images and on the winter’s morning when he captured the image, he was overwhelmed by what he saw. A new America still in it’s prime. In the photograph Stieglitz denudes the building of its ‘solidarity and function as an office’.

 

Lewis Hine photographed New York over 30 years in direct opposition to Stieglitz. Hine focused on different but related areas of New York, such as Ellis Island and the processing centre where immigrants were taken into the city. Hine was also the official photographer for the documentation of the empire state building; he recorded its construction from start to finish.  His images state the enormity of the changing city and human figure in Hines work emphasises the City that was built on hard labour not through the lens of a camera. His photographs display the extent to which the city has been viewed as a spectacle.  (Graham Clarke (1997). The Photograph. Oxford: paperbacks. 79-81)

The city it’s self has been a constant source of inspiration for many different photographic genres and photographers themselves. 

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The city constantly produces new subject matter to be interpreted differently by these different photographers, if we use New York as an example and compare the work of Stieglitz’s and Hine. Stieglitz’s ‘focused on the architectural skyline and environment of the city, how skyscrapers can be seen as objects of human creativity.’ (Graham Clarke (1997). The Photograph. Oxford: paperbacks. 79-81) Whereas Hine focused on the street. He photographed the hard working people as the city and displayed how the people built the city, such as the immigrants of Ellis Island that globalised America or the dedication of the workers on Empire state building.

Graham Clark describes this photograph (Columbus Circle 1933 taken by Bernice Abbott) as a brilliant rendition of the modern City; he talks about how this reflects the urban scene as a process of signs. There is no Unity or coherence, merely the play of advertising codes which create their own terms of reference. He mentions how ‘Abbot is acutely aware of the sign and its implication for how we understand the City as text rather than an environment. Her photographs are full of adverts, signs boards and direction: the basic alphabets of communication in an urban space. Columbus Circle, in that sense, is ahead of its time and suggests a postmodern condition’.  (Graham Clarke (1997). The Photograph. Oxford: paperbacks. 89)

Relating to a book by Graham Allen about Roland Barthes, the book talks about how Barthes finds codes and connotative meanings within photographs. However Barthes explains that these messages are very different to art or literature as the camera only displays what is directly in front of it. In this sense the city is home to thousands of codes projected though advertising photographs and signs. Meaning the city is a home to photography and its many forms and uses (Graham Allen (2003). Roland Barthes.  London. Routledge. 119-123)

If we look at more contemporary photography in the city, such as Philp-Lorca Dicoraia‘s heads. This was a project photographed by Dicoaraia that started in 2000, what made this project truly unique was that all of the equipment used from the flashes to the camera was completely hidden from the public’s view.  All concealed beneath a contractors scaffolding, with an ‘X’ drawn on the floor to mark where a person is in complete focus and where the flashes would hit their face. Dicoaraia used this to create work that is inarguably truly candid. This pushed the boundaries of street photography and is an example of photographers finding new and exciting ways in which to photograph in the city. 

Considering all of the above, what is the city to Photography? Something to be preserved through the lens, also something that defeats all whom photographically encounter it, from Atget to Stieglitz’s. It’s constantly adapting and changing from its people to its architecture, making it a continuously important subject matter for photographers, artists and poets. The city is also a home to many important members within photography, whom live and work within the City. It’s also a place where contemporary photography thrives.  To conclude, the city is of great importance to photography and without the development of the city, photography would very arguably still be in its primitive state. 


I do not own any of the photographs or images displayed in this essay.