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The City

The nineteenth-century city: a utopian daydream and a diabolical thing of fear, all in one; objectified by prospective thinking and made subjective by deep panic; a patrimony to be protected and raw material to be opened up; land speculation and exploitation of the eye of the tourist; a history of art and culture and a reduction to banality by way of all possible forms of comfort. In the course of the nineteenth century, cities became the explicit object of new policy (urbanism), of new practices (tourism), of a new kind of human intervention (restoration and redevelopment) and a new description (patrimony).

Paris was the capital of this process, and there was no city that escaped its influence. In academies and universities, in the studios of writers and painters, at the pinnacles of politics and in the studios of architects, it was thought about and debated. From 1840 onwards, photography, the new visual technique, also played its role. Although Paris was the point of reference, Paris was still just one European city among thousands of others, where, with at most some delay, they faced the same challenges. Each city reacted after its own fashion, in some combination of submissiveness and resistance. The norm is general, the resistance always specific. Geographic, financial and ideological differences generated a wide range of diverse reactions and solutions.

Bruges also modernized itself, but it did so by giving absolute precedence to a single window of the renewal project: conservation and restoration. Historicizing is the second half of nineteenth-century modernizing. In Bruges, the Concert Hall (1869, designed by Gustave Saintenoy) in the city centre is the most prominent reminder of a rapidly crippled ambition to become visibly modern, to be nineteenth-century. This project, under a liberal city government led by Jules Boyaval, was honed back by catholic opinion. Even the Steenstraat did not become the modern promenade of the new middle class and consumerism. Here, in this city, the bourgeoisie never explicitly acquired a face of its own.

The modern city is therefore also sooner a typically ideal object, a theoretical hypothesis. In reality, there are just cities, in the plural, and each is a case apart. When we fail to see the local urban histories and personalities, we miss an essential key to clarifying the visual material.

At the same time, parallel solutions for parallel problems did present themselves. Each city was unique, but all faced identical challenges. Beginning in 1852, the Bruges photographer Jan Frans Michiels (1823-1887) recorded the completion of the Cologne cathedral. It is one famous example alongside scores of others, for photographers travelled and moved their residences remarkably often. Their style, their sensitivities were adaptable. An attentive, comparative reading of the photographs reveals how, beyond the many similarities, there are truly significant differences between, for example, urban images by Pietro Poppi (1833-1914), the leading photographer of Bologna, and those of Victor Daveluy (1846-1886), who produced a crucial album of urban views of Bruges.

Our attention, therefore, must volley back and forth between uniformity and specificity, between the monotone imposed by a technique and the subtle accents of each individual who employed it, between the comparability and the incomparability of each location and each monument. Only in this restless motion does the photograph emerge as an expression of importance.

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