Unreal Nature

February 8, 2017

The Street Was Exchanged for the Freeway

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:44 am

… “No longer a polis, the city is regarded as a hunting ground for small incident that may, at any moment, speak of the cruelty, the ludicrousness, or the impromptu wackiness of life.”

This is from the essay ‘Photographing Posturban Space: The Demise of Street Photography and the Rise of the Spectacular’ by Steven Jacobs found in Spectacular City: Photographing the Future (2006):

… In some sense … the history of urban photography runs parallel to that of urban planning, which came to exchange the model of the centralized metropolis New York for the horizontal urban paradigm of Los Angeles, Houston, Atlanta, or Las Vegas. Both leading conceptual artists and the New Topographics shifted their gaze geographically by exchanging the inner cities for an urban landscape that came to be paradigmatic for the late-twentieth-century urban condition: the suburban metropolis of Los Angeles, anonymous tract houses in generic suburbs, disconsolate wastelands, slick new office parks, nondescript spaces in peripheral zones, and the non-places of the global city.

These spatial changes of the city also resulted in a dominant style of urban photography. In their depictions and interpretations of the new urban fringes, the edgy style of street photography was exchanged for a more topographical approach, often reminiscent of nineteenth-century urban and landscape photography. When downtowns made room for peripheral areas; hectic street life and density were exchanged for emptiness and openness; small-format cameras for large view cameras; physical proximity for distance and detachment; spontaneity for calculated framings; speed for slowness; a hot aesthetics for one of aloofness; the here and now of the decisive moment and of the unique encounter for repetition and interchangeability.

Furthermore, the demise of street photography was also caused by several social changes of the city centers. To a large extent, the process of suburbanization (or disurbanization) erased public space in the inner cities, the ultimate hunting grounds of the street photographer. The street was exchanged for the freeway and the flâneur had become a chauffeur. In addition, with its ghettos, monofunctional office quarters, gentrified neighborhoods, streets reduced to traffic corridors, atriums, malls, theme parks, and tourist sites, the late-twentieth-century metropolis was no longer capable of embodying a kind of civitas.

Especially in its so-called humanist phase shortly before and after the Second World War, street photography, both in its celebration of neighborhood life and in its appraisal of the hectic rhythm of the inner cities, was closely connected to the idea of a metropolitan community. Although the modern metropolis was the breeding ground for social atomization and the process of individualization, intellectuals and artists had presented the city as a spatial realm reflecting the colorful interaction and unity of its components. Street photography appealed to this notion of the city as a democratic public space. During the last decades, however, public spaces have been increasingly privatized and/or transformed into theme parks.

… The last representatives of the grand tradition of street photography (Winogrand, Arbus, Davidson, Clark, Goldin) no longer presented the city as a polis, but rather as a hunting ground for colorful details. In his overview of the representation of New York in the history of twentieth-century photography, Max Kozloff stated that in the 1970s, “the erstwhile and shopworn iconicity of Manhattan was replaced by scenes of ever more local or even private import, which no longer represented any thinking about the city as a whole. … No longer a polis, the city is regarded as a hunting ground for small incident that may, at any moment, speak of the cruelty, the ludicrousness, or the impromptu wackiness of life.”

[ … ]

… In an age of city marketing, which relies heavily on commercializing urban images, contemporary urban photographers are compelled to take a self-conscious position vis-à-vis their own medium and the functions it serves. The reluctance of these artists to depict the city by means of ‘straight photography’ is undoubtedly inspired by the complexity of today’s urban landscape, which, in itself, is increasingly staged, simulated or turned into images by the processes of gentrification, mallification [= transformation into a mall], and tourism.

-Julie

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