Repopulating the Street: Contemporary Photography and Urban Experience

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  • This article was downloaded by: [University of Georgia]On: 18 December 2014, At: 05:14Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office: MortimerHouse, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

    History of PhotographyPublication details, including instructions for authors and subscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/thph20

    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

    To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03087298.2013.798521

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  • Repopulating the Street:Contemporary Photography and

    Urban Experience

    Rosemary Hawker

    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:

    r.hawker@griffith.edu.au

    1 Walls work began as a photograph of

    actors on a set but these figures were

    removed.

    History of Photography, Volume 37, Number 3, August 2013

    http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03087298.2013.798521

    # 2013 Taylor & Francis

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  • 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

    Archive.

    342

    Rosemary Hawker

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  • 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-

    century Paris:

    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

    banal.5

    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.

    5 Ibid.

    343

    Contemporary Photography and Urban Experience

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  • 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.

    344

    Rosemary Hawker

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  • 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-

    century city?

    The move towards the emptiness and anonymity of th...

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