Between urban politics and urban aesthetics

An introduction by Dirk Lauwaert

Urban photography in the 19 th century examines the role of 19th-century photography in the consciousness and perception of the European city as a historic focal point - a fulcrum subject to the powers of modernization. Contrasts between urban centres and expanding suburbs, between handicraft and industrial production, between transport by water and over land, between conservation and redevelopment, between restoration as both a form of protection and of rebuilding, between the interests of residents and those of visitors all determine the overall politics of life. What role did the visual image play in all of this, and in particular, what was the role of photography?

These cities have been considered to date: Bruges (BE), Bologna (IT) and Maastricht (NL). (Brussels (BE) will also be studied in greater detail.) The moderate size of these cities, their peripheral positions with regard to Paris, the European metropolis, and the fact that they have been selected from different countries has made this a unique and original project. Urban photography became firmly imbedded in each of these locations. It is evident that modernization and the photography it generated were a pan-European process that nonetheless repeatedly took place within unique local frameworks. The forceful imperatives of modernization and its photographic imagery were universal, but their instrumentation was always operative at the local level. The nature of Paris as a model is in this regard as clarifying as it is misleading. It is the mid-sized city that particularly demonstrates how modernization was not exclusively pursued, but instead generated a resistance specific to each locality. The European city has always been the result of adaptation and resistance. What role did the visual image and the photograph in particular play in this field of tension?

This research has been essentially interdisciplinary. It is about reconstructing the context within which these images were made. It is self-evident that local politics, social conditions, restoration policies, architectural concepts, the rise of tourism, 'print culture', the history of photography as a technique, its practice and its exploitation all play a part. The research also has an international dimension. At the time, professionals who were concerned either with cities or with visual images moved often from place to place, maintaining international contacts and exchanging ideas. The old vocational mobility of the itinerant crafts and the new punctual mobility of the traveller came in mutual succession. Architects, photographers, printers and publishers, people responsible for the preservation of historical monuments and for new city development, industrialists and hygienists frequently travelled throughout Europe. World exhibitions, magazines and trade fairs were sites of intense exchange. The images themselves became part of an exploding market; consequently, urban images are not simply found in the respective cities being examined, but in the most diverse archives elsewhere. This study intends to trace the international dimension of the 19th-century urban image, and in so doing, make it possible to reconstruct career developments and bodies of work.

Urban photography in the 19 th-century takes the role of photography as a fully-fledged cultural component seriously. Its visual statements about cities and architecture, about their history and their relevance deserve the same attention as do contemporary prints or paintings of urban landscapes, or 19th century novels in which the city is so often depicted as both décor and protagonist. Wrestling at once with the new and the old city was the cornerstone of a major part of the culture of the 19th century. Its paradoxical essence was questioned in all kinds of ways in novels, poetry and paintings; it is unthinkable that the photographer and his clientele could possibly have escaped being sensitive to this. What forms did photography take in order to play an active role in the overall picture? Are these forms aesthetically identifiable? In photography, the intentions of the content cannot be separated from aesthetic objectives. Insight into the aesthetics of these images is as important as insight into their politics.