“the representation of the metropolis in various media has had at its disposal one particularly privileged instrument since its beginnings: photography. generated by technological apparatuses dating from the period of the expansion of the great cities, images of paris, berlin, new york and tokyo and of the inhabited continuums of the first, second, and thirds worlds have entered our memory and our imagination by way of photography.”

22/06/2012 § 1 Comment

roman bezjak, deli palyaudvar budapest  (2009)

 

landscape photography, aerial photographs, and photographs of buildings and of the people living in big cities constitute a principle vehicle for information that makes us aware of the built and human reality that is the modern metropolis.

photography’s technical and aesthetic development has been the evolution of different sensibilities in relation to the representation of architecture, to the point where it has become impossible in recent years to separate our understanding of modern architecture from the mediating role that photographers have assumed in this understanding.  the manipulation of the objects captured by the camera – framing, composition, and detail – have decisively influenced our perception of the works of architecture photographed.  it is impossible to imagine a history of the 20th century architecture that would not refer to specific architectural photographers.  even our direct experience of the built object cannot escape the mediation of photography.  it would thus be meaningless to evoke some manichaean idea of a direct, honest, authentic experience of buildings, against which to set the manipulated perverse other of the photographic image.

the same is true of the city. not only is the possibility of accumulating direct personal experiences problematic in places in which one has not lived for a long time, but our gaze has been constructed and our imagination shaped by photography.  of course, we also have literature, painting, video, film, but the imprint of the photographic (that ‘minor art’ as pierre bourdieu would have it) continues to be primordial for our visual experience of the city.  during the years of the metropolitan project, of its theorization and of the propaganda presenting the great city as the indispensable motor force of modernization, photography played a decisive role.  the photomontages of paul citroen, man ray, geogre grosz, and john heartfield set out the accumulation and juxtaposition of great architectonic objects as a way of explaining the experience of the big city.

as rosalind krauss has shown, photography operates in semiological terms not as an icon but as an index.  photography’s referent has no immediate relation, as a figure, to the forms produced by photography.  no formal analogy makes transmission of the photographic message possible.  rather this occurs through the physical proximity of the signified and its photographic signifier.  when we look at photographs, we do not see cities – still less with photomontages.  we see only images, static framed prints.  yet by way of the photographic image, we receive signals, physical impulses that steer in a particular direction the construction of an imaginary that we establish as that of a specific place or city.  because we have already seen or are going to see some of these places, we consume this semiological mechanism of communication, and the memories that we accumulate through direct experience, through narratives, or through the simple accumulation of new signals produce our imagination of the city.

after world war ii, photography developed a system of signs completely different from that of the density of the photomontage.  we could call this the humanist sensibility of urban narratives constructed from images of anonymous individuals in settings devoid of architectonic grandiloquence.  ‘the family of man,’ an exhibition organized by edward steichen at the museum of modern art in new york in 1955, was produced after the magnum photo agency had initiated the ‘existentialist’ reading of the city and landscape (which reached its apotheosis in robert frank’s 1962 book ‘the americans’).  yet the phenomenon that interests me here dates from the 1970s, with the inauguration of quite another sensibility that directed yet another gaze on the big cities.

empty, abandoned space in which a series of occurrence have taken place seems to subjugate the eye of the urban photographer.  such urban space, which i will denote by the french expression ‘terrain vague’ assumes the status of fascination, the most solvent sign with which to indicate what cities are and what our experience of them is.  as does any other aesthetic product, photography communicates not only the perceptions that we may accumulate of these kinds of spaces, but also the affects, experiences that pass from the physical to the psychic, converting the vehicle of the photographic image into the medium through which we form value judgments about these seen or imagined places.

 

-ignasi de sola-morales, terrain vague [1]

 

terrain vague

a young hare

 

 

notes:

[1]     de Sola-Morales, Ignasi. “Terrain Vague.” On Landscape Urbanism. Ed. Dean Almy. Austin, TX: Center for American Architecture and Design, University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture, 2007. 108-09. Print.

[image]     today’s image comes from the always great – betonbabe.  while the work of roman bejzak might not fit neatly into ignasi de sola-morales definition of terrain vague, his work seems to stem from a similar interest in photographing the city.  in this case, there is a vague nature to the image.  without knowing more about the context, a metro station in budapest, or the time period, three years ago, this photograph takes on many potential stories.

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You are currently reading “the representation of the metropolis in various media has had at its disposal one particularly privileged instrument since its beginnings: photography. generated by technological apparatuses dating from the period of the expansion of the great cities, images of paris, berlin, new york and tokyo and of the inhabited continuums of the first, second, and thirds worlds have entered our memory and our imagination by way of photography.” at a young hare.

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