Complete texts

Units of Urban Photography

By the 1920s, the fragment had become the new standard, something that the 19th century never revealed and never thought about. In the 18th century, the veduta - the prospect, or vista - had been the standard unit: a panoramic totality in which each city was described (not narrated) as a unique sum of its parts. The 19th century lived under, or to put it more strongly, lived in the shadow of the monument. The monument was central, but its power only expressed itself in the grip in which it held its environment. This implies an inherent discord: was the standard unit now the monument, or its environment? It is from this dichotomy that the difficulty in the identification of the archival material stems. Was this urban photography or was it architectural photography? The latter category had been integrating itself as an important photographic genre, with solid theoretical and historic support. The former category, in contrast, had virtually no points of reference. It is nonetheless clear that we would do no justice to the overwhelming portion of this archival material by calling it architectural photography.

Surrounding the monuments in many 19th-century photographs are complexes of buildings, appearing not as noise at the margins of the image, nor as a flat coordination, but as a clear unit, with the monument in its surroundings. The tourist terminology spoke of a 'view' (vue). 'View' was in fact a designation for the tourist activity, not a designation for the subject matter. What motifs did the view generate? Not fragments, not panoramas, but a quantity, a unit of environment. In a view, a series of elements (buildings, water, public squares, trees) can be recognized as a single living unit that is being considered, reflected on in the photograph. The tourist was led by the guide to the places where he could see that unit. From a specific vantage point (a set of optical coordinates), he saw the multiplicity of structures as a unit. That unit was also actually present, but only from that standpoint. The placement of the viewer makes the subject visible.

A view is the effect of the structures working in unison, the rare effect that separate elements can suddenly seem to belong together as a clear ensemble. This belonging together proved that harmony was possible: if it was possible between the buildings, then why not amongst their inhabitants (thinking about the city was always thinking about democracy)? This belonging generated an environment (also in the sense of an embrace, an atmosphere). The environmental effect usually started out from a monument that radiated circles of atmosphere and symbolic associations, fanning outwards. Conversely, the surroundings reinforced the building like a resonating box. The rich - but forgotten and so difficult to feel - tradition of lithographic urban views (such as the Vedute Pittoresche della città di Bologna album by Antonio Basoli, from 1833, or the Album Pittoresque by Joseph Octave Delepierre, 1837-1840) brought the 'descriptive' staging of the 'view' to perfection. Photography then went on to build further on that tradition.

There is in fact a problem in the transition from the urban print to the urban photograph. Draughtsmen and lithographers both could subtly modulate their subject matter - altering proportions, adding or deleting details, light and shadow, dramatizing clouds. With these means, they could plastically reinforce the unit of the image. In principle, such means were not available to the photographer, even though in practice, they tried all kinds of interventions to nullify that reality. The photographer then had his photographic framework at his disposal, with which he imposed a very inflexible structure and definition onto his image. The poetry of the photograph is not demonstrably a creation of the photographer, nor is it comparable to that of the lithograph. Indeed, the poetry of the photograph can convincingly be attributed to the subject itself. If the lithographer staged, then the photographer appeared only to frame. The lithographic print spontaneously accentuated the monument, while the photograph fatally laid out all the elements in an identical mode. The lithographic print was an aria with a user's manual. The photographic print was a chorus determined by the part-song of the chosen theme.

Back to top