Whether in the moving image works of famous urban story tellers, such as Woody Allen, or the still image works of admired photographers, such as Eugene Atgets and Man Ray, the interest in urban images is here to stay. I feel that the purpose of urban photography is to create visual appeal that summarizes the dynamics of modernity in an open or closed manner. Urban photography is a bold and formal experiment with the iconography of urban landscapes, and can be described as “city symphonies.” Thus, I view urban photography as a serious form of art. Yet, because urban images can be entertaining as well as distressing, I discuss urban images here by considering the example of the city of Hong Kong, and comparing and contrasting its urban images with other cities of the world. I also compare the works of some urban photographers, such as the Dada and Surrealist photographer Man Ray.
Symmetry, or the lack of it, also makes a great urban photograph; such as when one considers the picture of the skyline of a city. The photographer must gauge whether or not symmetry is something to embrace or avoid, as a symmetrical picture must have powerful composition and a superior central point of focus to make a striking shot.
Consider another picture epitomizing urban decay in Detroit, the William Livingstone House as shown in Figure 2 in the Appendix (Time Photos, time.com), designed by architect Albert Kahn and built in 1893 in the Brush Park area, once a very high-class neighborhood. Several attempts to conserve this monument failed, and it has now been demolished.
Depth of field can impact the composition of the image in a significant manner as well. Selecting a shallow depth of field isolates the subject from its background, and/or foreground. A large lens aperture helps create a shallow depth of field and a consequent blurred effect to the non-subject areas of the photograph. Figure 3 in the Appendix (eightminutesold.com) demonstrates such use of depth of field control.
Perspective is another element of photography often used in urban settings that can significantly affect the quality of the image. Perspective in this context means shooting a picture from an unusual angle, such as from on high so that the camera looks down on a subject. Figure 4 in the Appendix, the 1956 picture of the Packard automobile manufacturing plant (Time Photos, time.com) is a good example of this technique. Taken through the broken and dirty window panes, the shot emphasizes the desolate surroundings. Just as actual frames are used when displaying photographs on walls or table tops, the concept of framing can also be used effectively within a photograph. This not only emphasizes the basic point of interest in a picture but in my opinion also enhances the concept of “depth” by focusing on the depth of field. The above-mentioned Figure 4 is also a good example of framing.
The uses of urban photography are many. For instance, modern digital technology has enabled urban designers and city planners to illustrate and foresee plans for urban development, though the methods of using urban images and the verity depicted in them still need further research and analysis. The history of an urban civilization can be compared and contrasted by using various approaches of studying urban images. I find that an interesting and useful approach is by using the theory of the palimpsest from historical geography, which means juxtaposing and layering urban photographs. Crang (429-452) has used this approach in studying the city of Bristol. He has used “touristic sights,” – images that have been employed and created for heritage displays. He has also used the “dispersed memory” found in the archived images of the city, mostly in the Reece Winstone archive of Bristol. His analysis of these archived images highlights the import and intricacies of modern technologies used to view the urban landscape. He emphasizes that images of a city should not be merely used as simple documentations that demonstrate the past years or generations, but suggests they should be used in the creation of a variety of historic senses, using different methods of perception and diverse processes of envisioning the city. According to Crang, in depicting the city of Bristol visually, a variety of technologies should be connected, along with varied perceptions to form a distinct genus of urban scenic photography, which combines a certain “sensitivity to the passage of time” as well as providing a meticulous understanding of the city.
Although the techniques of photography and the equipment used for it have undergone significant changes over time, the fundamentals remain constant. Several ideologies and codes used by photographers from the yesteryears are still being used extensively today. Thus, analyzing the works of photographers from the past along with the works of contemporary photographers can be useful in understanding and employing urban images.
Several surrealist photographers of this era, including Andre Kertesz and Ilse Bing, depicted in their urban photographs the conflicting nature of cities, that is, development alongside decomposition, by contrasting architectural grandeur with the degenerated lifestyle of the urban dwellers. In 1932, Kertesz took a photograph of the French Academy through the glass-faced clock (icp.org/museum/exhibitions/andre-kertesz). The photograph shows the oversized Roman numerals of the clock superimposed on the large piazza of the academy scattered with several unknown pedestrians – thus representing the urban life. The implication is that the clock is ticking and bringing the people closer to their doom, a reference to the Last Judgment. Similarly, Ilse Bing’s 1934 photograph, Eiffel Tower, (mutualart.com) shows the grandeur of the famous Eiffel Tower alongside chimneys and decrepit roofs of buildings in the city.
One of my earliest and most remembered urban photographers is perhaps Eugene Atget, who recognized the demand for pictures of Paris of an earlier era and began taking them (urban-photography-art.com). He photographed old structures and buildings (often prior to their demolition) with an emphasis on their architectural details. He showed street vendors at work, and in1920, after he had sold 2,500 negatives of his work to the Caisse National des Monuments Historiques and gained financial independence, he showed interiors of the homes of people belonging to varied social classes. The derelict seemed to have fascinated him as his photographs often showed abandoned statues and paintings. I find it interesting that he preferred to use an old wooden 18 x 24cm plate camera, even when much more modern equipments were available. He explained his preference by saying that he used these cameras because they worked faster than he could think. He also used wide-angle lenses, bringing out innovative perspectives and vignetting in the upper corners of his photographs. He often used long exposures and slow plate films to cause deliberate halation and blurring of movement.
Contemporary New York City-based urban photographer Andrew Prokos is famous for photographs of cityscapes and skylines. His photograph of the panorama of midtown Manhattan at sundown (weburbanist.com) conveys the very essence of the city of New York, with the glittering lights representing the aspirations and dreams that come with life in a big city. It is interesting to view skyscrapers, which had become the icons of the 1940s – as shown in photographs such as Alfred Stieglitz’s The Flatiron building – shown in such a different perspective in Prokos’ photograph. The Flatiron Building was among the very first skyscrapers built in the city of New York, and characterized the growing modernity within the city. I find the contrast in the perception of the skyscraper over the years remarkable; unlike the previous era’s gloomy opinion of the skyscraper, today it is viewed with a much greater acceptability.
While most contemporary urban photographs of today show the glamour and glitz of western cities, I consider that Eastern and Asian cities of the world are more interesting, owing to the greater variety of societal and religious differences that can be depicted in photographs. A very fine example of such a city is Mumbai, India. Perhaps the irony of urban existence in Mumbai is most famously captured in a moving image medium, that is, the movie Slumdog Millionare. Photographs of the kind that Atget sought, pictures that reflect a dire existence in a city alongside luxury and glamour, are seen distinctly in cities with a large gulf in financial statuses of the citizens. Such disparity can also be seen in American cities, as reflected in the works of American photojournalist Martha Cooper (12ozprophet.com), who captures the temporary art form of graffiti. While graffiti can hardly be said to be a modern form of art, its photographic capturing is indeed modern. The importance of this form of urban photography is that graffiti is often a means of social or political expression.
The city of Hong Kong is also a photographer’s delight – a surprising combination of towering skyscrapers and mystical monasteries. Photographs of the Chunking Mansions area are captivating when contrasted with the glamorous photographs of Hong Kong’s airport area. The former is one of the poorest areas in Hong Kong, with penniless immigrants from countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India flocking there. Pictures of the Chunking Mansions’ street vendors selling ethnic Asian cuisine provide an illuminating contrast to the pictures of the glamorous restaurants of Hong Kong. Photographs of entertainment zones like Disneyland, major brand shops, and heritage sites like Victoria harbor present the urbanized side of the city. However, Hong Kong presents a very “un-urbanized” image in pictures of areas such as those around the Chunking Mansions.
I see the visual images of a city to be in a constant state of juxtaposition and incongruity. A city is not only the focus of aspirations and dreams – generally inconsistent with the realities of life – but it also encompasses a variety of social strata and groups that may co-exist in a state of conflict. The multicolored display of urban street life captured in a photograph and the elements of shock and entertainment in it can either disturb or entice viewers. Thus, an urban photographer should respond to this state of incongruity with a unique perception, one that does not follow any rules. As the urban photographer must draw his or her inspiration from within the boundaries of a city, he or she has to be observant of the diversity that exists within it. Famous French urban photographer’s Henri Cartier-Bresson’s words best summarize this essay on urban photography: “Photographers work in unison with movement as though it were a presentiment of the way in which life itself unfolds. But inside movement there is one moment at which the elements in motion are in balance. Photography must seize upon this moment and hold immobile the equilibrium of it”. (urban-photography-art.com/henri-cartier-bresson).
Alifragkis, Stavros and Penz, François. “Spatial Dialectics: Montage and Spatially Organised Narrative in Stories without Human Leads”. Digital Creativity 17.4 (2006): 221–33. Print.
Burroughs, William, S. “New York Inside Out”. Introduction to the book of photographs by Robert Walker. Toronto: Skyline Press, 1984. Print
Crang, Mike. “Envisioning urban histories: Bristol as palimpsest, postcards, and snapshots”. Environment and Planning 28.3 (1996): 429–452. Print.
Crisman, Phoebe. “Outside the Frame: A Critical Analysis of Urban Image Surveys [Media and the City]”. Places 18.2 (2006): 38–43. Print.
“Codino Divino Photography”. (2007) January 5, 2012 http://www.pbase.com/accl/hong_kong
Cooper, Martha. (2011). January 5, 2012. http://www.12ozprophet.com/index.php/martha_cooper/
Eight Minutes Old. 3 May 2009. Web. January 5, 2012.
Gratton, Johnnie and Sheringham, Michael. The Art of the Project: Projects and Experiments in Modern French Culture. New York: Berghahn Books, 2005. Print.
Johnson, Ken. “Once Shocking, Now Poetic”. The New York Times. March 11, 2010. Print.
Kertesz, Andre. Past Exhibition, Sept. 16-Nov. 27, 2005. International Center of Photography. January 5, 2012.
Mutual Art. Ilse Bing (2011). January 5, 2012
Time Photos. Detroit’s beautiful, horrible decline byYves Marchand and Romain Meffre (2012). January 5, 2012 http://www.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1882089_1850973,00.html http://www.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1882089_1850974,00.html http://www.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1882089_1850981,00.html.
Trans Atlantique. Man Ray (2004). January 5, 2012 http://www.manray-photo.com/catalog/product_info.php?products_id=424&language=en
Urban Photography (a). Henri Cartier-Bresson: Famous Photographers Of Urban Landscapes (2010). January 5, 2012
Urban Photography (b). Eugene Atget: Famous Photographers Of Urban Landscapes (2010). January 5, 2012 http://www.urban-photography-art.com/eugene-atget.html
Web Urbanist. Andrew Prokos (2011). January 5, 2012 http://weburbanist.com/2009/09/23/fine-art-photography-work-of-24-famous-photographers/.
10 Elements of Photography. Allen Mowery (2010). January 5, 2012 http://allenmowery.com/10-elements-of-photography-composition
Figure 1: Michigan Central Station by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre
(January 5, 2012)
Figure 2: William Livingstone House by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre
(January 5, 2012)
Figure 3: The decisive time span by Marcel
(January 5, 2012)
Figure 4: Packard Plant Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre
(January 5, 2012)