I love photography. I love looking at great photos, and I love reading about how they were made, and the thought processes that go into creating photos. There isn’t a lot written in terms of the critical theory behind photography, beyond the most well-known and obvious works – Barthes, Berger, Sontag, etc. I’m always interested in reading about photography rather than about photographic techniques.
I wrote once before that there came a time in my photographic learning journey (quite early on in it, as I recall) when I realised that I knew all I was interested in knowing about f-stops, ISO, shutter speeds, hyperfocals, parallax and so on. I’m not saying I knew all there was to know – you only have to look at one of my pictures to see that’s not true – just that I knew all that I could be bothered to know.
For me, pictures aren’t made up of those things. If I look at, say, Bill Brandt’s wonderful image “Nude, East Sussex, 1957″…
… do I care what the f-stop was? Do I worry about the shutter speed? Or do I care about the meaning?
I realised, when looking critically at my own photos, I like taking photos in an urban setting. I love taking photos in large cities and small villages equally. For some reason I only noticed a few weeks ago, I take lots of pictures of doors, windows; transitions of any kind.
I did some reading about street photography, to see if that could help me understand what compelled me to take photos of doors and suchlike. Reading about street photography led me to discover urban photography.
What is ‘urban photography’ and why does it matter?
‘Urban photography’ is just a label that we apply to a particular type of photography; it’s just happens to be one of my favourite types of photography, which is why I’m writing about it. Assigning that label lets us say something about the type of photograph it is, and what we should expect to get from seeing it. Unfortunately, there are lots of definitions of urban photography and whilst there’s overlap, there’s not a lot of actual agreement. So, I wanted to look at a few different definitions and see how they stand up to my own thoughts.
Firstly, a warning. I have a mania for labels. They’re very important, because they give essential context to a text without having to say stuff about the text itself first, meaning that you can get balls deep into the subject straight away. Here’s another warning; I use phrases like “balls deep” indiscriminately (as I do semicolons).
The genres that we assign to films and books are just labels, but important nonetheless. Knowing the genre lets you set appropriate expectations and treat the text accordingly. And if you don’t think that’s important, try this thought experiment. Imagine seeing ‘28 Days Later’, ‘Dawn of the Dead’ or ‘World War Z’ for the first time, under the absolute belief that it was a documentary or news report, and not a horror film.
Back to urban photography. While researching this piece I looked up a few other definitions. I’m going to start with what I think is the best, or at least, my favourite.
Cliff Davidson, Toronto Urban Photography Festival website
“…urban photography seeks to encapsulate not just people, but also objects, cityscapes, the surreal. Not only that, but urban photography moves away from the surfaceness of neo-street photography to a photography that critically examines objects, subjects, and landscapes and how they are (dis)connected and constituted by/constitutive of the city. Urban photography is not only a visual representation of an idea, a capturing of ‘the decisive moment’, no, it is also a commentary on contemporary life in an ecological space.”
Davidson creates his definition by saying what urban photography isn’t, and what it isn’t is street photography. There’s a lot to unpack in this snippet of Davidson’s piece, so let’s take a closer look.
“…not just people, but also objects, cityscapes, the surreal…” One of the points that Davidson makes is that what he calls neo-street photography – either candid photos, environmental portraits or posed portraits in a street environment which are the hallmark of modern street photography- lacks, or diminishes, the urban setting. The street becomes merely a backdrop to the photo, whilst the human subjects become of overriding importance. Pictures taken in the street, not of the street.
“…a photography that critically examines objects, subjects, and landscapes and how they are (dis)connected and constituted by/constitutive of the city…” Building on from the last point, what neo-street photography lacks is any critical close reading of the urban environment. It offers no commentary on the city, its architecture or situations. The link between the different elements of the photo and how they constitute an urban setting is downplayed or dissolved outright. The chance to comment on how the city informs the elements of the photo, and how the elements of the photo make up the city, is passed up.
“Urban photography is not only a visual representation of an idea, a capturing of ‘the decisive moment’, no, it is
also a commentary on contemporary life in an ecological space.” This is where I start to wonder about Davidson’s excellent discussion. The phrase ‘the decisive moment’ has, for me, become very much wrapped up in the modern definition of street photography. It’s a very Cartier-Bresson phrase, and one that has become attached to the image ‘Derriere la gare Saint-Lazare, Paris, France, 1932’ of the figure leaping over the puddle. For me, this is how manypeople interpret street photography – right place, right time, as though there were no skill or forethought attached, just dumb luck. However, the last part of Davidson’s passage is the closest single-line distillation of the idea of urban photography that I came across – ‘a commentary on contemporary life in an ecological space’.
Darren Rowse, Digital Photography School
Rowse refers to ‘urban landscape photography’, which is a term I’ve seen used interchangeably.
“Urban Landscape photography is a little slippery to define as it sits between a number of other genres. For the purposes of this article let me contrast it with a few related photographic genres:
- Cityscape Photography – urban landscapes go beyond the capturing of the big picture cityscape that is usually quote polished and clean.
- Architectural Photography – urban landscapes are less interested in the building and it’s architectural style and more interested in what happens in and around it.
- Candid Street Photography – urban photography focussed more upon the city itself (and it’s life) than the people who live in it.”
Again – not so much a definition of what it is, as what it isn’t. But overall, I agree with the sentiments. I think Rowse is reaching for the intangible aspect of urban life and urban photography. What it lacks is Davidson’s attempt to say what either of those actually is. Bonus points for the clarity of language, though…
Paul Halliday, Urban Photo Fest
“Urban photography is an interdisciplinary field of visual practice concerned with the evocation and representation of urban spaces and the lives of those living, working and moving through such spaces. It takes many forms including architectural, landscape, portrait, street, object, performance, documentary, archaeological, design and fine-art photography; all attesting to the rich diversity of practices constituting an ongoing conversation about the nature of contemporary and historic visualisations of city spaces. As a field of intersecting practices, it is closely related to urban research and reflects many of the themes explored by sociologists, cultural theorists, artists, anthropologists, geographers, historians and writers concerned with the story of the city.”
Gosh. It sounds a little hifalutin, but when we examine it, the important points are covered. “…evocation and representation of urban spaces…”, “…the nature of contemporary and historic visualisations of city spaces…”, “…reflects many of the themes explored by sociologists, cultural theorists, artists, anthropologists, geographers, historians and writers concerned with the story of the city…”. These are large claims and cover many of the things that I think urban photography is. It’s interesting that Halliday thinks that urban photography is more of a collective noun, encompassing different types of photography.
Where does that leave us?
We’ve looked at three definitions, admittedly two of which are definitions from what they are not. But there are some commonalities:
- Going beyond the surface to a critical examination
- More than just people and portraits, includes the city setting
- Trying to represent the intangible aspects – the feelings and emotions inspired by city life
- Faces, places and spaces
Faces, places and spaces
Okay, so the last one’s phrased a little flippantly to make the childish rhyme scheme. But when you think about it, it’s not that far off a combined definition of the three viewpoints reviewed above:
- Faces – the lives of people in the city, the characters that inhabit it.
- Places – the buildings and other structures that comprise the city.
- Spaces – the arrangement of the different features in the city.
This last is the interesting one. ‘Spaces’ may refer to the arrangement between buildings and other (non-building) features of the city – the open spaces, not just parks and green spaces, but simply the places where buildings aren’t. ‘Space’ can also mean the elapsed time between two events, which echoes Halliday’s definition with its ‘ongoing conversation’ and ‘historic visualisation’. And finally, the Oxford Dictionary provides another definition of space as ‘The freedom to live, think, and develop in a way that suits [some]one’, in the way we would talk about ‘a teenager needing their own space’. So by ‘spaces’ we’re talking about an arrangement of features, viewed over time, and the symbiotic relationship that they have with people’s lives.
So, with ‘faces, places and spaces’, have we accidentally stumbled on a succinct and all-encompassing definition of urban photography? At least, insofar as it relates to my interpretation?
There’s an elephant in the darkroom, and that is psychogeography. I’m not sure whether it even exists or whether it was a prank dreamt up by people who really needed a proper job. From Wikipedia:
“Psychogeography is an approach to geography that emphasizes playfulness and “drifting” around urban environments. It has links to the Situationist International. Psychogeography was defined in 1955 by Guy Debord as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.””
Street and urban photography both seem like perfect tools to drive Debord’s drift, the dérive. Pick up your camera, head out into the city, follow the camera lens. I did it just yesterday walking around Nottingham, walking around the city for almost eight miles and apart from the first 10 minutes and the last 5, I didn’t really know where I was. Whether it’s real or not, it certainly sums up a lot of my photographic method (and doubtless accounts for the haphazard quality of the results).