You could make the argument that photography is humble. It’s an art-form where the artist takes a backseat to the subject. The “subject” is the draw. The photographer sets a stage to prop the subject up and distills it through personal contexts and connotations (though even this is brought into contention elsewhere: see Death of the Photographer). Be that as it may, the subject is still the proprietor of our attention. And it can of course come in many forms, but for the purpose of this writing, let us turn our attention outwards to examine the oft-glossed over subject of urban/street photography: the city itself.
More than half of the world’s population currently live in cities and that number is growing. According to sustainability and environmentalist pioneer Stewart Brand, “cities are the drivers of history if we look at history.” Put another way, cities are where stuff happens. And this stuff, this history, is still happening. Street photography in a way captures this history all around us, the photographers acting as sort of unsung micro-historians. The “Global Village” analogy, oft romanticized, probably needs a touch-up to something more along the lines of “The Global City.” 1.3 million new people a week come to town, and this trend continues week after week, month after month, year after year. The villages of the world are drying up along with subsistence farming. As Stewart Brand says, “I used to have a very romantic idea about villages, mainly because I never lived in one.” There are continuously more opportunities in bustling metropolises. The fact of the matter is, city life is less physically grueling, better paid, private, safer, and well, more exciting and dynamic.
This dynamism is perhaps something that makes the idea of urban/street photography so interesting. Over a million different stories are happening at any given time, all and everywhere at once. The city is temporal. It is ever-changing and impermanent. Buildings are draped in graffiti that wasn’t there a week ago. A week later they may have transformed yet again or may have even disappeared entirely. City skylines are as dynamic as its people (Cliff once told me that there are only two seasons in Toronto: winter and construction). Our cities both shape us and are a natural extension, shaped by us. The relationship is reciprocal and symbiotic. And this allusion to biology doesn’t stop there.
In 2008, a joint project by Marc Barthélemy of the French Atomic Energy Commission in Bruyères-le-Châtel and Alessandro Flammini of Indiana University in the U.S. took data of street patterns from roughly 300 cities as diverse as Los Angeles, London, New Delhi and Venice and found that cities’ road patterns have much in common. In fact, not only mathematically was this similarity apparent, but also visually. This was interesting for two reasons: the first being that the similarity between the cities in the data was unplanned and unintentional. Street patterns in New Delhi and Venice were markedly similar, even when they were built continents and even centuries apart. The second reason this is of interest is that these models of road networks create patterns and imagery very similar to those in biological systems, like the veins or petiole on a leaf. It seems that there is an unconscious imperative, as we approach more and more complexity, for manmade systems to mimic natural biological systems. Kevin Kelly of WIRED Magazine calls this “up-creation.” That is, complexity increases as we move “upwards”. Author Steven Johnson talks about this as well: that slime mould cultures, even neurons in the brain mirror city streets and interconnections, and similarities occur serendipitously across different scales of reality.
Scaled down from aerial shots to street shots, we begin to see movement along these makeshift veins and petioles. As Coriolanus III of Rome said, “What is a city, but the people; true the people are the city.” It isn’t a stretch of the imagination to extend this comparison of winding interconnected city road networks to neuronal axon-dendrite connections in our brain or even capillaries in our circulatory system. And drawing from Peter Ackroyd and Cliff Davidson, if roads, walkways, and rails are the veins and arteries of the city, they only exist to direct the flow of blood/people. The people are a city’s life blood. In fact, without people, along with their movement and circulation, a city would die. Continuing with the body analogy, the blood is pumped to the ever-beating heart. And what else could the heart be but the place where industry and commerce reside and are centralized? It’s where stuff happens the most. This may be the reason why the majority of street photography focuses on busy downtown. Just spend an afternoon walking around Toronto’s Dundas Square and you’ll never have a shortage of photo opportunities; of stories to tell and histories to capture.
But in this gravitation towards the heart, there are things that get lost in the shuffle. The organism of the city does create a sort of schism, but I would argue that this in itself is a driver of one of its most endearing qualities. As if shunting occurred, with blood being brought from the extremities to the vital organs, so do people rush towards ‘progress’ and away from the suburban and culture specific outer-limbs. People cluster in this way, like specialized cells forming organs, they form pocket cultures. However, each one of these brings something novel to to the aggregate whole. Ali Madanipour, author of “Public and Private Spaces of the City” comments on the “inner city” and its epitomizing social exclusion (and subsequent inclusion), with urban ghettos or enclaves of like-natured people “spatializing” together, often around the same religion, culture, careers or socio-economic status. It’s inevitable that at least in some capacity these subcultures will interact in daily life, blend with and influence one another. It’s a phenomenon of constant breaking up of and building up of new patch-work communities whether in schools, work or play. This fraying and blending effect perhaps accounts for the boundless variability and identity in cities. You will never find so many people as eclectic and different from one another in such close proximity as you will in the hustle and bustle of city-life (and it seems that some of these differences, juxtaposed, can be very striking, and maybe even not so different).
Let’s return to the analogy of city roads as capillaries in our circulatory system. As previously denoted, these same pattern correlations are repeatedly found in many biological systems. The city “organism” in this light, even with its granite buildings and paved roads, seems very humane. So much so that certain urban planning think-tanks (like the Inria/INSA Lyon team ‘Urbanet’) who are continuously investigating potentialities for cities of the future, are directly noticing these similarities and basing their suggestions on our natural anatomy. Maybe this serendipitous similarity, this “up-creation,” has to do with the fact that cities are all human creations. The city then is paradoxically both very foreign and very personal – both separate and simultaneously “us.” This idea is what physicist Geoffrey West has been recently consumed with: the fact that cities are just a physical manifestation of your interaction, our interactions, and the clustering and grouping of individuals. Stated another way, the city is just a symbolic representation of us. We’re interested in it because it’s our continually unfolding story. Stripped of every formal textbook and city planning definition, maybe the crux of the city organism is… well, humanity.
And in that case, perhaps I was a little too quick in the beginning of this article to praise photography as humble. The city is many things: a home, a canvas, a playground, a workplace, a storybook. However, macroscopically, with all just described, is it that much of a stretch to add “mirror” to that list? And in this day and age, as evidenced by social networking, what mirror would be complete without a camera naturally poised against it to vainly capture a self shot?