3. Project 3: The Beautiful and the Sublime

3.4. Photography and the City

Louis Daguerre, Boulevard du Temple (1838) Image via Creative Commons.

Since the very beginnings of the medium, the city has provided opportunities for photography, both for landscape images and also as a rich resource of other potential subject matter. One of Daguerre’s first exposures, and the oldest surviving example of its kind, was the view from his studio window. Boulevard du Temple (1838) is also the first example of a photograph of a person. Unlike the rest of the people, carts and wagons that must have been visible from the window, the tiny figure towards the lower left of the frame with his foot perched was only rendered on the plate because he remained relatively still whilst having his shoes shined during Daguerre’s ten-minute exposure. Like Fox Talbot on the other side of the Channel, Daguerre also turned to still life subjects to experiment and practice with. One of the valuable lessons we can draw from both photographers is their example of engaging with their own surroundings photographically. Although Talbot did photograph beyond his home at Lacock Abbey, Clarke is critical of some of these works. If we needed a good example to highlight the limitations of the common misconception, that in order to take interesting photographs one has to travel, surely this is it.

“The images of Paris remain passive and mute, and establish not so much the tourist eye-view, hungry for sights to record, as one that was looking for things to record... his London images, for example Nelson’s Column (1843), keep the city at a distance and follow the eye in its way within the urban world.”

Clark, G., (1997) The Photograph, Oxford University Press: Oxford; New York. p.77.

The city is a type of space that we are more likely to associate with documentary photography – or, more specifically, street photography – than the landscape genre. Photography has often been used to explore and expose the darker, seedier side and moral imbalance within cities. John Thomson’s (1837–1921) major project documenting daily urban life, Street Life in London, was published in eleven parts between 1876 and 1877. On the other side of the Atlantic, the body of work How the Other Half Lives (1890), made by Jacob Riis (1849–1914), was a substantial photographic investigation of the impoverished parts of New York City, and is often cited as an example of a morally inspired social documentary that had a direct and lasting effect upon the political context of the time.

Photographers all over the world continue to explore the seedier – as well as complex – nature of conurbations. A recurring line of investigation is that of the city, not just as one complete inter-connecting unit, but as layers of different cities or cities within cities. Sometimes these elements are briefly exposed to one another, but often they are designed to restrain their inhabitants from uncomfortable contact with each other. This is a recurring theme in fictional narrative, for example the film In Time (2011). In this science fiction thriller set in a dystopian future, the protagonist travels through the different levels of strictly controlled and guarded zones to escape from the ghetto and seek revenge upon the most affluent who live in luxury at the cost of the poorest.

Extending some of the themes of his earlier works around history, memory and disputed territories, Paul Seawright travelled to major cities in sub-Saharan Africa, exploring communities on the fringes of conurbations, both geographically and socially, for his series Invisible Cities (exhibited 2007). Invisible Cities (the title is appropriated from the book by Italo Calvino (1972)), comprises varied photographs, some of which are recognisable as landscape pictures, whilst others might be considered works of environmental portraiture. None of the titles of the photographs refer to specific locations or people, which emphasises the indistinct nature and the anonymity of these places and their inhabitants. The photograph, Bridge (2006) perhaps communicates some of these ideas most acutely.

The road bridge, presumably an interchange of major roads on the edge of a city, cleanly divides the frame in two. A yellow bus heads along the road towards the city from, we might suppose, the sanctuary of the suburbs, taking children to school or their parents to work. The sky is empty and bleak, which is echoed by the detritus that sprawls below, shielded by the flyover from the view of the bus’s passengers. The composition and social sentiment echoes Stieglitz’s The Steerage, made 90 years earlier. You’ll return to the city as both a motif and a means of making work when you look at psychogeography in Part Two, but for now, it suffices to say that the city is a valid and exciting subject for landscape work.

Paul Seawright, Bridge, from the series Invisible Cities (2006) Image courtesy of the artist.