Repopulating the Street: Contemporary Photography and Urban Experience
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Repopulating the Street: Contemporary Photographyand Urban ExperienceRosemary HawkerPublished online: 21 Aug 2013.
To cite this article: Rosemary Hawker (2013) Repopulating the Street: Contemporary Photography and Urban Experience,History of Photography, 37:3, 341-352, DOI: 10.1080/03087298.2013.798521
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Repopulating the Street:Contemporary Photography and
Over the past thirty years, the city as represented by art photography has been shownas progressively empty and alienating. While the emptiness of nineteenth-centurystreets was due to the limitations of photographic technology, it was activelypursued as a formal device by the New Topographics photographers. Recent artphotography shows an even more pronounced trend towards showing the city asvacant. This contrasts starkly with the densely populated, bustling, urban environ-ments typical of twentieth-century street photography. This essay argues that imagesof an empty contemporary city can be understood as a symptom of disciplinaryrelations internal to photography as an art form, and as a consequence of artphotographys distancing of itself from vernacular representations of the citywhen the distinction between art photography and vernacular photography is atrisk of collapsing. Empty urban images tell us about modes of experience in thecontemporary city and about photography itself. This essay uses the trope of thebanal as a way of locating the extreme form of the everyday that typifies thecontemporary photographic discourse of the street. Philip-Lorca diCorcia andMelanie Manchot both address the everyday street as an acute site for understandingthe negotiation of public space and contemporary experiences of the city. Both referto yet go beyond the dichotomy of the city as empty or full and reveal a different setof relations to the street through photography.
Keywords: Paul Strand (18901976), Max Dupain (19111992), Jeff Wall (1946),
Philip-Lorca diCorcia (1951), Melanie Manchot (1966), street photography, New
Topographics, everyday, banal, vernacular photography
Contemporary photographs of the city are often curiously empty and still, a condi-
tion made emphatic in Jeff Walls Dawn (figure 1).1 Such images work against the
more familiar image of a densely peopled and dynamic city that excited early
modernist photographers and that has informed the genre of street photography
ever since (figure 2). Today, much of the world has achieved a population density,
structure and organisation that was rare when modernists advertised the vibrancy of
urban experience. The myriad social networks of the city enable new ideas of
community and individual connectedness. Yet, over the last thirty years, the city as
represented by art photography andmost recently by prominent photographers such
as Jeff Wall, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, Greg Girard, Gabriel Orozco and
Laurenz Berges the list is long and yet reductive is shown as progressively vacant,
its streets empty of human activity and interaction.
No doubt there are multiple influences many external to photography that
have led to what I describe. One could learn much from studying the actual process
of urbanisation to understand the relations played out through this photographic
Email for correspondence:
1 Walls work began as a photograph of
actors on a set but these figures were
History of Photography, Volume 37, Number 3, August 2013
# 2013 Taylor & Francis
trope. Nevertheless, this essay can only make a simpler argument that the numbing
emptiness of the city as found in so many contemporary photographs can in part be
understood as a symptom of disciplinary relations internal to photography as an art
form and a popular cultural practice. These starkly depopulated urban settings are
the result of art photography distancing itself from vernacular representations of the
city that have thoroughly absorbed the language of art photography. The aesthetic of
the everyday, celebrating the work-a-day yet dramatic, busy and characterful city, as
it does particularly in street photography, has been so successful, so widely embraced
and repeated, as to become generic. Photography that claims the status of art does so
partly in its opposition to the vernacular, avoiding widely recognised formulas, in
pursuit of a more acute and aesthetically challenging form of the everyday. I refer to
this amplification of the everyday as the banal but my use of the word banal is not
Figure 1. Jeff Wall, Dawn, transparency in
lightbox, 2001. Courtesy of the artist.
Figure 2. Paul Strand, Fifth Avenue at 42nd
Street, New York, platinum print, 1915. #Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand
pejorative. Rather, it is an attempt to locate an extreme form of what is called the
everyday in photographic discourse: a profound literalness that contemporary art
photography seems to pursue. To explore these issues is to understand why the city as
a subject for photography has become emptier and enervated while our cities are
increasingly populated, chaotic and, in many ways, more enabling than ever before.
In this way, these images and their relations tell us something of the discipline of
photography at the same time as they tell us about modes of experience and relations
with the world as represented in photography. Therefore, the emptiness identified in
the photography of urban banality is both a literal and a figural emptiness. It applies
to both the city that is represented and the photograph as emptied of style.
This essay will put some evidence to this claim through a loosely historical case
study of the photographic representation of the city that shows how our experience
and understanding of the urban environment have undergone this strange inversion.
I will then look to photography by Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Melanie Manchot that
suggests new ways to encounter and interpret the city through photography and,
importantly, a way out of the impasse of the banal.
The city has always been a ready subject for photography, its accelerating change
coinciding with the mid-nineteenth-century invention of the medium. As such,
photography has played a constant role in understanding urban experience. Yet,
looking across photographic representations of the city from the nineteenth century
to today, we can see a strange binary inversion of the city as trope, where, broadly
speaking, the twentieth-century city is shown as densely populated and dynamic
while the twenty-first-century city is comparatively still and empty of people.
Steven Jacobs also identifies these extremes when he charts the representation of
the city as void across photographys history, doing so against a backdrop of more
familiar representations of the metropolis of chaotic diversity.2 Jacobs identifies the
limits of technology as responsible for the emptiness of early urban photographs,
where long exposures erased the bustling activity from the streets of nineteenth-
At a time when artists and writers were starting to define themodernmetropolisas a place of hurried activity and fleeting impressions, photography reduced thesame scene to a panorama of motionless, lifeless objects. Because people arecompletely absent or reduced to the shadowy form of blurred ghosts, the urbanlandscapes recorded in early photographs were often described as cities of thedead.3
Rapidly changing photographic technology saw exposure times shrink from hours to
minutes and to fractions of a second by the turn of the twentieth century. With
smaller cameras and shorter exposures, street photography quickly developed into a
genre based on spontaneity and celebrating the activity and excitement of the city.
Yet, as Jacobs details, in a wide variety of photographs across the nineteenth and
twentieth centuries, and in examples from literature and architecture, streets
remained empty in order that the city might be construed as a site of isolation and
alienation or as architectonic andmonumental. Jacobs concludes his discussion with
reference to photographs from the 1960s to the present, arguing for their thoroughly
established post-urban emptiness.4 Returning to the technology and discipline of
photography, he notes the further entrenchment of emptiness by such topographic
photographers as Ed Ruscha, Stephen Shore and Lewis Baltz and continued today by,
among others, Wall and Gursky. He describes the move away from the spontaneous
snapshot aesthetic of street photography and towards the physical and emotional
reserve of large-format cameras, concluding: The urban void no longer expresses a
sublime horror or loneliness and alienation. Emptiness has become everyday and
Jacobss thorough account of the various symbolic and aesthetic uses of the city
as void implies a fairly even-handed oscillation between the two opposed tropes of
the city as dense and dynamic or as empty and still across most of the history of
2 Steven Jacobs, Amor Vacui: Photography
and the Image of the Empty City, History of
Photography, 30:2 (2006), 10818.
3 Ibid., 108.
4 Ibid., 118.
Contemporary Photography and Urban Experience
photography. I argue for a stronger distinction between the photographs of the
twentieth-century and twenty-first-century city, where the history of photography
and developments in photographic technology intersect in the representation of
experience in surprising ways.
While exceptions in both categories of image are easily found, from the turn of the
nineteenth century onwards photography characterised the city as peopled and purpo-
seful. Photographers such as Paul Strand, Walker Evans and Robert Frank clearly
celebrate the citys density, industry and activity. Their photographs show people
traversing urban space, their multiple unknowable agendas briefly intersecting, their
diverse trajectories underlining the dynamism of the city as a place of purposeful
activity. Strand uses heightened viewpoints to emphasise the proximity of bodies and
their convergence, while Evanss and Franks grounded views amplify the compressed
space of the crowded street and the indirect looking and seeing that enables people to
find a path through the throng. Throughout the twentieth century, modernist photo-
graphers carried this theme still further, making the sense of the city as a complex
organism all the more apparent. Even when this tipped over into incoherence, the city
remained dynamic a place of endless and diverse possibility. This is variously com-
municated through the press of bodies in the street, chance encounters, crowded cafes,
and traffic, all set against the dense urban grid, multi-storied buildings, and industrial
structures. This was the case whether the city was New York, Paris or Sydney, as
demonstrated in examples from such diverse photographers as Robert Doisneau,
Alexander Rodchenko and Max Dupain (figure 3). Even when the city was the back-
drop to solitary moments that might signal exceptions to this trope, these examples
often communicate a sense of having this remarkable place to oneself, of going places
and doing things within its enabling infrastructure, rather than of being alone or
alienated in an indifferent environment. While the examples from Surrealism that
Figure 3. Max Dupain, Rush Hour, Kings
Cross, gelatin silver print, 1938. # TheMax Dupain Exhibition Negative Archive.
Jacobs identifies clearly resist the prevailing aesthetic, by casting the city as alienating
and otherworldly their resistance demonstrates the strength of the mainstream mod-
ernist response and its familiarity.
As a subject for photography, the city has been theorised in many ways, most
famously through Walter Benjamins claim that new media collapsed the distance
between lived experience and art.6 This topic is also addressed through urban and
architectural theory. Parallels with the empty city are found in the concept of the city
as void (as described by writers such as Bernardo Secchi,7 echoed by Jacobs and seen
in photographs by Struth and Gabriele Basilico), and in the concept of terrain vague
(as described by Ignasi Sola-Morales and often addressed by Walls photographs).8
While we can continue to discuss everyday experience through these images and
ideas, the nature of this experience seems radically recast, and recast in a way that
runs counter to the simple logic of population densities and urban infrastructures.
So, how can we understand this shift away from the dynamism of the twentieth-
The move towards the emptiness and anonymity of th...