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Fra Carnevale The Ideal City Essay

This extraordinary panel exemplifies Renaissance ideals of urban planning, respect for Greco-Roman antiquity, and the mastery of central perspective. The imaginary city square features a Roman arch typically erected as a commemoration of military victory at its center. As a whole, the painting offers a model of the architecture and sculpture that would ideally be commissioned by a virtuous ruler who cares for the welfare of the citizenry. The amphitheater is modeled on the Colosseum in Rome. The octagonal structure to the right, covered with colored stone, suggests the medieval Baptistery in Florence, which in the 15th century was thought to be a reused Roman temple. Together they reflect the importance of security, religion, and recreation in a well-regulated city and the value of Roman ideals in urban design. The private residences at either side are also dignified with classical architectural elements. Classicizing elements also appear in the foreground. Statues, set on columns in the Roman style, represent virtues of a good ruler, including Justice with her sword and scales and Liberality (generosity) with a cornucopia. This view and two related paintings (now in Urbino and Berlin) were apparently commissioned for the palace of Duke Federico da Montefeltro of Urbino. Set into the woodwork at shoulder height or higher, "The Ideal City" would have seemed like a window onto another, better world. The illusion of a space that extends out from our own is achieved using a mathematical perspective system developed in Florence. The space is defined in terms of the viewer's own angle of vision: the receding lines establishing spatial relationships converge at a central point in the city gate visible beneath and beyond the Roman arch. For more information on this painting, please see Federico Zeri's 1976 catalogue no. 96, pp. 143-151.

Picturing the City

Fra Carnevale, The Ideal City, ca. 1480-84

(A Selective Introduction)

The Ideal City is envisioned here as a solemn and distinguished panorama. It is a proposal for order, a harmonious balance between form and function, between the social and the structural, between church and state, monarchs and subjects. Inspired by Leon Battista Alberti’s theories on architecture this painting is attributed to Bartolomeo di Giovanni Corradini (Fra Carnevale). It is not a real place of course but a 15th century pastiche of architectural references that together represent order, continuity, elegance and power. The horizontal plane is the realm of the human, where we live and work. It implies human interaction. The Ideal City is a Renaissance dream for humanity to live a rational life, free of violence, chaos, and degradation.

Peter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel, 1563

Although Pieter Brueghel the Elder made this painting in 1563, about eighty years later than The Ideal City, The Tower of Babel represents an older vision of the city.  Instead of balance and order, this painting depicts humanity’s vaunting ambition, an ambition so great that it aspires to the heavens.  This is the last moment of humanity’s cohesiveness, of speaking one language, of being able to work collectively toward a common goal. You can see that Brueghel’s depiction of the Tower is based on the Roman Coliseum.  Across Europe, Rome was the eternal city, the center of Christianity, but for a number of dissenters, Rome was also the site of spiritual corruption.  We can envision the collapse this corruption will eventually cause by looking at Tower itself.  It leans dangerously to the left, threatening everything in its shadow.  And because the Old Testament God is a jealous and territorial master, he will punish the humanity by sowing confusion and misunderstanding. We will never again be one people with a common tongue.

Gustave Caillebotte, Paris Street, Rainy Day, 1877

George Grosz, Metropolis, 1916-17

The dance between these twin poles of chaos and order are deeply embedded in our understanding of the cities we actually live in. Paradoxically we fear and are deeply attracted to post-apocalyptic visions of the city. We simultaneously desire an ordered and elegant place to live, where citizens are free to pursue their noble interests, yet (not so secretly) hallucinate the terrible beauty of everything in ruin.  George Grosz imagined the Weimar era metropolis as a depraved, dangerous and exciting environment. Luridly cast in red, the city is a place of violent and sexual encounters, where ugliness and exaggeration rule the night.  The excesses of German Expressionism were violently repressed during the Nazi years – leading not to the eternal neo-classical beauty that Hitler envisioned but instead the complete destruction of German cities.

Berlin, 1945

Photography is a descriptive medium and photographers are observers. Photographers come to knowledge through observing and documenting their surroundings. Some photographers are identified with specific places; they create a cumulative portrait of a particular time and place. We know fragments of a lost history of Paris through Atget.  Koudelka was in Prague during the Soviet invasion.  Bill Brandt gives us an image of London during the mid-20th century. It is dark and exaggerated but no less evocative.   Barbieri has created a God’s eye view of Rome, transforming its monumental symbols of the past into miniature dioramas.

Eugene Atget, Cour du Dragon, 1913

Josef Koudelka, Prague, August 1968

Olivo Barbieri, Roma, c. 2000

Often on assignment in the Middle East, Magnum photographer Alex Webb makes a home in Istanbul. As an outsider he has been able to vividly portray the clash between the traditional and the modern, the east and west. His photographs of Istanbul have helped form the public’s idea of life in contemporary Turkey as much as the novels of Orhan Pamuk.

Alex Webb, Instanbul, 2001

Although it is the image of the American city that I want to discuss here, in many ways that image was formed first in the European imagination.  I think most of us know Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, released in 1927; it was, up to that point the most expensive and visionary film ever made.  It begins with a utopian vision of the future, impossibly tall buildings tower over streets bathed in a glowing light. Planes fly over skyways that carry cars and trucks from place to place. Metropolis features splendid parks so that its privileged citizens can play to their hearts content.  It is not long before we see that there is a terrible price to be paid for such elegance and beauty.  For every healthy and entitled citizen living in splendor above there are hundreds of workers living below ground, enslaved to a life of grinding drudgery in order that the few may live so well.  The utopian promise of Metropolis becomes a dystopian nightmare.   The film set the standard for complex story telling, futuristic visions, special effects and political consciousness.

Fritz Lang, Metropolis, 1927

Fritz Lang, Metropolis, 1927

Paul Citroen, Metropolis, 1923

Fritz Lang claims that this collage by Paul Citroen inspired his vision for Metropolis. Citroen, an artist and designer in Weimar Berlin was himself inspired by Erwin Blumenfeld, an artist and photographer who dabbled in Dada Collage in the nineteen teens and early 1920s. As a Jew in an environment in which the supposed superiority of the Aryan race was proclaimed, Blumenfeld was obsessed with boxing, and identified particularly with American boxers, making collages that Black boxers dominating their white opponents. The boxers tower over the skyscrapers symbolizing their strength and determination to rise above the challenges of racism and poverty. Blumenfeld escaped Nazi Germany and finally ended up in New York City where he became a successful and influential fashion photographer.

Erwin Blumenfeld, left, Boxers 1926-30, and right, City Lights 1946

One can point to many cultural and technological shifts in the nineteenth century that prepared the ground for collage to become a radically new and ultimately pervasive phenomenon. The invention of photography freed painters from slavishly mimicking the external world, pointing them in the direction of the ephemeral, the internal, and the non-figurative. The ongoing Industrial Revolution shattered centuries-old social relations, creating burgeoning working classes alienated from their roots and their labor through wage slavery. Colonialism and immigration precipitated profound shifts in both personal and collective consciousness, bringing wildly divergent cultural practices, symbols, and languages in close proximity to one another. Cities became collage-like in their random juxtapositions of architecture, ethnicity, wealth, and poverty. Strolling through the alleys and boulevards of any major nineteenth century European or American city, one would encounter dozens of languages being spoken in a grand linguistic collage. The simultaneous and fragmented narratives that played out on the street, as the multitudes negotiated their lives, were a constant reminder that the city was a shifting hybrid always in flux.

Alexander Rodchenko, Stairs, 1929

A revolution in perspective was provided by the invention of the 35mm Leica camera in the mid 1920s.  Its true that Kodak had marketed the hand-held camera since the late 1880’s but the Brownie could not produce high quality images.  Liberated from clumsy large format cameras and clunky tripods, with a Leica photographers could take prowl the streets and take images from wherever their bodies could take them. They could be fast, spontaneous, and take more pictures in a shorter amount of time. Concurrent with the experimental atmosphere of Weimar Germany was the explosion of creativity in the Soviet Union of the 1920s.  Alexander Rodchenko, Constructivist extraordinaire, climbed atop of buildings, ladders and moving vehicles, to document the socialist experiment transforming Russian society. Radical perspectives in photography mirrored the radical restructuring of society. Inspired by Metropolis, Dziga Vertov’s 1929 film Man with a Movie Camera adopted this idea of the omnipresent and omnipotent camera and made it synonymous with the language of film itself.

Dziga Vertov, Man With A Movie Camera, 1929

Man with a Movie Camera is a self-referential document. The camera has replaced the eye of god, as the omnipresent observer. The city is the protagonist of the film, a kind of living organism in which all human activity, architecture, and industry work together to create life.

Balthus, The Street, 1933

This 1933 painting by Balthus is titled The Street.  It is an essentially photographic concept – In that the city street is an open theater, a collection of gestures, of disparate intentions.  Here Balthus is evoking the Flaneur.  The idea of the flaneur was crucial to early 20th century art and literature.  The poet / artist / photographer wanders the city, allowing chance to guide his way through the labyrinth of streets. What would he see when he turned the corner, what strange juxtapositions would reveal hidden meanings?  Of course, the photographer armed with a 35mm camera was the best possible flaneur; he could prowl the streets to capture the ephemeral truths of the everyday. Walter Benjamin believed that the camera could reveal what he called the ‘Optical Unconscious’ – That the veiled dynamics of power and psychology that motivate our most basic interactions could be discovered by freezing fleeting moments in the camera.  Cartier Bresson’s version of the flaneur was to perfect what he called the ‘decisive moment’ when the formal and narrative elements of the picture came together in one imperceptible instant.

Henri Cartier Bresson, Madrid, 1933

Andre Kertesz, Meudon, 1929

Two Hungarian photographers excelled in the role of the flaneur, Andre Kertesz and Brassai.  This image by Kertesz is perhaps my favorite photograph in the entire history of photography.  As if the most random occurrences were caught in flypaper, Kertesz’s image is more authentically strange than any Dali painting and in fact points to the inherent surrealism of photography itelf.  Making the familiar strange, relying on chance elements, unveiling hidden enigmatic meanings, these are characteristics of Surrealism, but whereas a Dali or Magritte painting may have the look of the unexpected, they are obviously carefully constructed over time. The photograph is truly spontaneous; it is made in the moment often without deliberation. The photograph is also a dislodged object; a moment is stolen from its natural context and embedded in the sticky trap of a silver emulsion. The next moment never arrives; it is always frozen and doesn’t answer the question of what happens next.

Brassai, Paris, 1931-32

In the 1930s Brassai, documented the secret life of Paris.  Lovers on park benches, gay clubs, and prostitutes, all of those dark desires that are hidden in daylight are captured in Brassai’s nocturnal wanderings. Like Mapplethorpe and Peter Hujar decades later, Brassai married formal elegance and outsider sexuality in mysterious and challenging images.

So let us finally travel to New York: the iconic 20th century city. The image of New York is a stand in for all America – representing monumental scale, a metropolis teeming with life.  The city of promise.  Here we have a still from the 1933 movie King Kong.  A monster of nature versus the most monstrous of cities. Man versus nature, savage versus civilized. America versus Africa.  Kidnapped from the heat of the jungle the King of the Apes was forcefully relocated to the cold heart of the American Empire.  An unwilling immigrant King Kong rebelled.

King Kong Over New York, 1933

Between 1880 and 1920 20 million Europeans immigrated to the United States – the eastern and Midwestern cites of the U.S. Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Milwaukee, became enclaves of European culture and influence.  Lewis Hine is the foundational photographer for 20th century documentary practice in America. He understood the utilitarian power of photography as evidence. He also understood the profound cultural changes this wave of European immigration would precipitate. His photographs of Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island in New York – embody this incredible population shift with clear-eyed sympathy.  Later his images of child labor in factories and on the streets were used in Congressional hearings to establish laws against Child Labor. Lewis Hine was there to document that most iconic of skyscrapers, the Empire State Building as it was being erected in the early 1930s. Here the worker is a heroic symbol, part human part machine, elegant, powerful, instrumental in constructing the largest building in the history of humanity: Babel realized.

Alfred Steiglitz, left, Flatiron Building 1903, and right, Lewis Hine, Empire State Building, 1930-31

If Hine stands for photography’s efficacy as a tool of social change, Alfred Stieglitz occupies the opposite end of the spectrum. Stieglitz wanted to establish photography as an art form on its own terms. Stieglitz’s images of the city are formal, tightly composed views that speak of the city and its people, not as documents but as symbols.  Unless you were a person of interest to Stieglitz personally, and that usually meant artists or intellectuals like his wife Georgia O’Keefe, people were to Stieglitz, props or minor players in the larger drama of 20th c. esthetics. Stieglitz was interested in the verticality of the city – the drama of its architecture, how the giant blocks of steel and concrete fit together like a compositional puzzle. Lewis Hine and Alfred Stieglitz established the twin poles of American photography, Social Work versus Camera Work, the Horizontal plane of humanity and the vertical axis of formalism. In other words documentary versus art.

Weegee (Arthur Fellig), Cover of Naked City, 1945

Arthur Fellig, aka Weegee was thoroughly American. He was a tough guy, ambitious, and self-promoting. His photography was all sensation and spectacle. His were neither the contemplative formal arrangements of Stieglitz nor the social humanitarian documents of Lewis Hine. He was a hard living photo journalist who mocked power and privilege whenever he had the chance and celebrated working people, drag queens, drunks, petty criminals. His book of photographs, Naked City published in 1945 collected 20 years worth of his spectacular visceral images and inspired a Film Noir adaptation in 1948.  Film Noir, born out of German Expressionism combined with a fascination with the multitude of stories and characters that the city promises, is both a hybrid of the European imagination and American reality.  Weegee meets Nosferatu.  And its influence grew to encompass painting as in this famous Edward Hopper painting from 1942, French New Wave and countless recent spectacles of good guys, bad guys and sexy bombshells in the present and in the dystopian future of Blade Runner released in 1982.

Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942

Still from The Big Combo, 1955

Poster for Blade Runner, 1982

“I don’t’ want a documentary or sociological statement” so stated Roy Decarava, the black photographer who lived and photographed in Harlem for most of the 20th century. Decarava knew his neighborhood; he was not a temporary outside observer. He was not a detached flaneur.  He sought to depict African American life in Harlem truthfully without resorting to the clichés of urban poverty.  Although his photographs fit within the social humanist tradition, his images are more nuanced, more musical in their subtleties. It was as if Decarava hid his politics in the tonalities of his photographs.  Light and shadow are not simply tonal opposites but are coupled in the contradictory dance of history – a sad but honest recognition that out of darkness comes light and that without shadow there can be no luminescence.  Through Decarava’s photographs of Harlem we can understand that light can illuminate or it can be vanquished. Shadow can obscure but also give shape, meaning and depth.

Roy DeCarava, Women and Children at Intersection, 1952

Robert Frank’s road trip through 1950s America is by now a mythic tale. We are so familiar with these images we have become desensitized to their impact.  While its true that Frank photographed not just in cities but in distant and forgotten corners of small towns, his sensibility was essentially an urban one, a European and urban sensibility.  In opposition to America’s own provincial, triumphalist vision of itself, Frank brought his European existentialism, his restless, melancholic eye to gaze upon the fragmented and lonely life that was and still is at the heart of the American spirit. Americans celebrate themselves as ruggedly individualistic, as if the wild spirit of the cowboy was our guiding spirit instead of the tired cliché that it has been for a hundred years.

Robert Frank, cover of The Americans, 1959

Robert Frank, Hoboken, 1955

Frank’s vision was radically subjective. He renegotiated the terms of documentary practice – instead of trying to achieve a bogus objectivity; Frank fused the clarity of photography with a deep but compassionate ambivalence about the human condition. Although Franks’ images function within the tradition of the social document, he was not trying to prove anything, was not providing evidence of social injustice with the idea that photography could change the world. He was not presuming the he was representative of the world’s conscience.  He emphatically only represented himself – he was a free agent of his own melancholic reverie. After Frank’s ‘The Americans’ photography would never be the same.

Garry Winogrand, New York, 1969

Garry Winogrand had his own inimitable style. He had none of Frank’s gentle sadness; Winogrand was a kind of Fuck You street guy. Tough, cynical, with an uncompromising work ethic, Winogrand’s famous dictum was ‘I photograph the world to see what it was like photographed’ which pretty much encapsulates his impatience for art, posers, critics and all those wanting him to explain his obsessive vision. His mistrust of art and intellectuals was a part of his authentic American character.  He would have made a good taxi driver or cop. Unafraid of hostile encounters, he followed his intuition and over three decades created an enormous archive of American street life.

Some photographers approached their subject matter as if they were targets. William Klein returned to New York from years in Paris as a successful fashion photographer and declared, ‘I want to kick New York in the balls’.  This hostility is clearly evident in the faces of people on streets of 1950s New York.  The grimacing caricatures are like modern day figures from a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Stupid, horrific, ugly.

William Klein, New York, 1954-55

For Arbus the city was an endless circus sideshow. As if strangers existed solely for the purpose of putting themselves on display for millions to behold. Arbus seemed to suggest that all you had to do was walk down the street, take a bus or the subway and there you have an instant spectacle of humanity, crushed together in all its misshapen glory.  Arbus was kind of like an eccentric zookeeper, gathering the strangest animals she could find to put them in the square boxes of her photographs. Making the majority of her photographs in the 1960s her vision was the antithesis of the counter-culture movement. More akin to the vision of Robert Crumb’s cartoon exaggerations, Arbus did not indulge in fantasies of love among all men or peace on earth; she saw, instead, humanity as permanently expelled from the Garden of Eden.

Diane Arbus, A Young Brooklyn Family Going on a Sunday Outing, 1966

Lee Friedlander’s version of the photographer flaneur was to self-consciously point out the dynamics of photographing on the street – from its predatory implications – such as this image of Friedlander’s shadow on the back of a woman’s coat. This image is both funny and creepy – the texture on the woman’s fur hood gives texture to the shadow of Friedlander’s hair – but he is also very close to this woman, clearly he is following her as he photographs.  In myriad other ways, Friedlander refers the way in which photographs make sense of the world through fragmentation, reassembly and chance juxtaposition.  Friedlander photographed a lot in New York of course but he also photographed in Western cities and landscapes. As it moves west, America become more sprawling, more decentered, less like the 19th century city models and more like the 21st century model whose structure is determined less by walking and public transportation, and more by the sprawling structures made possible by automobiles.  His image of the American West, such as this one taken in Albuquerque New Mexico, is the geography of nowhere. There are no identifiable landmarks here, no historical markers, it is random and generic, a decentered, ever spreading suburban sprawl that the majority of the American west has become.

Lee Friedlander, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1972

On the west coast photographers did not have the verticality of eastern cities but instead the horizontality of endless roads and the dominance of the automobile. Ed Ruscha’s playful conceptual photography projects employed photography’s easy accessibility and ability to document the most mundane phenomenon. 26 Gasoline Stations and Every Building on the Sunset Strip did not privilege beautiful fine art photographs but instead the flattest most artless approach to photography. This was the birth of conceptual art and photography was its main tool.

Ed Ruscha, Every Building on the Sunset Strip, 1966

In the late 1970s and early 1980s the photography world was swept up in a radical paradigm shift broadly termed post-modernism.  Influenced in equal parts by theory and popular culture, postmodernism was, to simplify it a bit, skeptical of the ideas of artistic originality and of cultural progress often looking back to raid the archive as a source for ideas. Not for the sake of nostalgia but instead to investigate and re-examine how images shape what we know and who we think we are. Beginning in the late 1970s Cindy Sherman dressed herself up for a series of photographs called Untitled Film Stills.  These deceptively simple black and white photographs do seem like outtakes from some budget movie, or stock images of the generic single woman living in the big city.  They are all of Cindy Sherman but they are emphatically not self-portraits. They are examinations of the masquerade of femininity in media culture.  Sherman’s photographic works are emblematic of this shift in photography from the experience of interacting with ‘real life’ on the street to a more conceptual and performative practice of constructing images.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #58, 1980

As photographers have moved away from the classic street photographer approach, they have attempted new ways to interact with the dynamic of life in the city. In the 1980s and 90s performance, theatricality and cinema played into the photographs of Jeff Wall and Philip-Lorca DiCorcia, among others.  Wall’s large-scale tableaux images reconstruct the very real issues of the day from racism to homelessness.  Philip Lorca DiCorcia’s street photographs in New York employ strategically placed strobes that in effect isolated individuals from the crowd.  As if acting in a play or being suddenly illuminated from the heavens these random citizens become primary actors in the theater of the street.

Philip-Lorca diCorcia, New York, 1993

During this same period, the photographer Ron Jude was also interested in the performance of maleness in public space.  Attempting to add something new to the history of street photography, Jude would sit on the sidewalk, or follow the men close behind.  Aiming his camera up from down low, Jude transforms the image of ordinary businessmen into monumental abstractions. These men, so serious and intent on making and impact on the world, are rendered anonymous and strange through very simple process of isolation and unusual perspective.

Ron Jude, Executive Model, 1992-95

I want to remind you of that Balthus painting – just to show you these two images by Julie Blackmon, which are contemporary tableaux images, constructed narratives clearly mimicking his characters and choreography. The tableaux approach to photography has for the last 20 years supplanted street photography as the dominant genre.  I have no objection to it per se; I think Blackmon’s work is clever. I like the elaborate tableaux of Gregory Crewdson as well.  Nevertheless something is lost when a majority of photographic artists construct their images in the studio or in Photoshop, rather than discover what the world actually looks like.  It is similar to 19th century Pictorialism – photographers, instead of making primary documents of their interaction with the world, reference other media such as painting and film – making the photographs look more like ‘Art’ with a capital A.  Perhaps it is the art market, perhaps it is the dominance of art schools and the critique of representation, but street photography has lost its centrality to photographic practice. Encounters with real life in which the photographer must immerse him or herself in the wonders and contradictions of reality is not something that many photographers seem comfortable or interested in today.

Julie Blackmon, Homegrown Food, 2012

Julie Blackmon, Olive & Market St. 2012.


REAR WINDOW, the 1954 film by Alfred Hitchcock tells the tale of a professional photographer who cannot leave his apartment because of a broken leg. He tries to alleviate his boredom by observing the comings and goings of his neighbors through his cameras and binoculars. Jimmie Stewart is a modern Peeping Tom, armed with sophisticated tools for looking. The congested city provides him simultaneous narratives on which to project his fantasies.


Jimmie Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, 1954

Surveillance in many forms has manifested in the works of a variety of contemporary photographers. Merry Alpern boldly embraces looking at what you should not be looking at, the scopophilia and the voyeurism at the very heart of photographic practice.  Alpern, whose Dirty Windows project shows us the activities in a downtown sex club, hid herself and her camera across an alley in order to photograph through the pre-existing window frame. Sex acts, drugs, the exchange of money, all neatly framed by a perfectly-placed window.

Merry Alpern, from Dirty Windows, 1995

The French photographer Jean Christian Bourcart has lived in New York for 15 years and his photographs of passing strangers in vehicles capture the multiple furtive encounters we have with strangers as we traverse the city. We exchange glances with strangers, notice their sad eyes, their messy hair, or a scar on their cheek. We wonder who they are and what their stories might be. They return the gaze and look at us, perhaps wondering the same thing. But we will never know each other, we are like phantoms, elusive ghosts who pass by one another unacknowledged a thousand times a day.

Jean-Christian Bourcart, from Traffic, 1999-2003

Just last year, New York based photographer Arne Svenson caused a minor controversy by displaying photographs he had taken of people living in an expensive high rise across the street from his apartment.  Featuring floor to ceiling glass walls, the occupants of this luxury building are on constant display.  The question of privacy or lack thereof might seem obvious but when Svenson had a show of these photographs last year, many of the inhabitants were outraged. Several attempted legal action but Svenson won the court battle.

Arne Svenson, The Neighbors, 2012

Considering the growth of the surveillance state and the fact that public interaction is happening less on the streets and more in online communities it is perhaps fitting that these most recent images were not taken by a human being but by a global internet search engine otherwise known as Google.  The fact that Doug Rickard titled his project A New American Picture draws a straight line between these pictures and those made by Walker Evans and Robert Frank.  Rickard essentially downloaded thousands of image files from Google Street View onto his computer and after selecting specific images he ironically photographed them off his computer screen.  So, is Rickard the photographer? Technically yes, conceptually yes, but existentially no. These images are a selection, and in that sense, it is a postmodern gesture, an appropriation and a meta-commentary on how images are made in our paranoid, digital culture. Rickard is not on the street interacting with people in their own environment, he is sitting on his coach using corporate technology to essentially spy on strangers.  In Rickard’s defense, the motivation behind his project is very connected to the ideas of Lewis Hine and many 20th century documentary photographers in that these images do reveal something about contemporary poverty in America.

Doug Rickard, from A New American Picture, 2009

Google cannot enter the private mansions of the Upper West Side or Beverly hills.  It is the privilege of the rich to protect their privacy, the poor have no where to hide, literally and figuratively, So as the omnipresent Google eye sweeps the run down streets of America in decline, we see what American poverty looks like, figures like isolated stick figures strolling barren streets, slightly blurry, ill-defined, like shadows on a terrain.  The technological predictions of Dgiza Vertov have come true. The camera eye has replaced the omnipresent eye of God, but instead of social progress, instead of technology serving the liberation of man from poverty and injustice, the Camera eye, the Google eye, observes the slow entropy of human decline without a blink.

I would like to begin to bring this to a close with a selection of images from the under-appreciated American photographer Peter Hujar. Hujar died of HIV-AIDS in 1987 at the age of 53. Hujar brought the refined elegance of Brassai and Kertesz to the dangerous streets of 1970s and 1980s New York.  Manhattan is basically an island of rich people now, a giant mall of expensive boutiques. But not so long ago, the lower east side and the waterfront were places full of secrets.  You can sense Brassai’s Paris in Hujar’s New York, feel the sensuality, the love and the fear of the city and those who also prowl the streets.  Here is a Hujar image of the Twin Towers at night.  Despite the grandeur of those two buildings, that area of Manhattan was long considered a no-man’s land, a bit boring and sterile during the day, and empty at night. We know what happened to those towers, how they have been transformed from ambitious but banal architectural gestures into a kind of negative Stonehenge.  What happened to the boy in the plastic pants?  Here he is so angelic and dionysian, not a vision but an inviting body. Images are authorities of the past, sentinels of what once appeared so solid.

Peter Hujar, left, World Trade Center at Night, 1976, and right, Boy in Plastic Pants, 1978


And then 9/11, transforming the city and the United States forever.  The days immediately following 9/11 were notable for the strong camaraderie among Americans, a feeling that we were one family; this feeling is entirely extinct now. Post-apocalyptic visions are nothing new of course, but our collective witnessing of a horrifying spectacle has perhaps snuffed the possibility of utopic visions of the city and now it is a commonplace for artists to create elaborate visions of a post-human landscape, such as these miniature dioramas by Lori Nix or these neo-Tower of Babels created by the Chinese artist Du Zhenjung.  Nix and Zhenjung are among legions of contemporary artists whose dystopian or post-apocalyptic work is no longer just some futuristic romantic fantasy. They are imagining the city, as it might be very soon, destroyed in one blow, or decaying on its unsteady foundations.

Du Zhenjun, Tower of Babel: The Flood, 2010

Lori Nix, Subway, 2012

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, The Tomb of Cecilia Metella, 1762

What is the city now? What will it become? Will future citizens contemplate our ruins like Piranesi conceived of the remnants of Rome? Will our cities be romantic ruin, left intact as a reminder that all of humanity’s creations are ultimately dust?  Maybe the idea of the city was only a extended dream, played-out perhaps, in which it was hoped that the mixing of people, cultures, and ideologies would produce a more enlightened global citizen. If that is the case, I am glad that there have been so many photographers prowling the streets to capture the phantom ideal in all its flaws and glories.


This essay is modified from a lecture given at the PhotoLux Festival in Lucca, Italy on December 7, 2013

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