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The New Prestige of Nineteenth-Century Urban Photography

The last quarter of the twentieth century held topographic photography from the nineteenth century in very high esteem. Given its static and descriptive character, it played the ultimate referential role in a conceptual and serial approach to photography. Without psychology (in contrast to portrait photography), without drama (in contrast to journalistic photography), architectural photography became the nerve centre of an aesthetic and intellectual change in photography. (The landscape genre played a comparable role in a reversal in painting a century earlier.) The revelation of the Mission Héliographique in 1850, the American Rephotography Project, by Mark Klett and others, the minimalist style of the Bechers and their students and the Datar project in France, are but a few highlights in a very exciting history of rediscovery and inspiration. The practice of photography itself has often functioned as photography's most convincing critic.

But this late modern (not postmodern) interest has troubled the waters of what was actually at play in nineteenth-century topographic photography. People have accredited it with an objectification that seldom actually played a role, systematically failing to see its narrative foundations. As admiration so often does, it here projected and generated misunderstandings. The problems began with what the new admirers thought the old photographs were recording. The abstracting term, 'topography', indicates what we today think in terms of terrain, instead of in terms of buildings that together form a whole: a public square, a street, a corner. The nineteenth-century photographer knew only a sense-creating unit and combinations that gave the city a personality. The nineteenth-century observer saw a city as a course of monuments united into a coherent profile. Nineteenth-century photography was never the recording of a territory, as it is in today's topographic tradition, but an ode to an architecture or a city. Today's photographer - like the cartographer, in fact - stands outside the fabric of the city he subjugates into an abstract point of view. The nineteenth-century photographer in fact offered an alternative to such objectification: he related, he told, he bound the city into a narrative whole.

This misunderstanding goes as far back as the 1930s, with its critical assessment of Atget and perceived tendency towards anomie, instead of homage to an organic city and its sites. Walter Benjamin in particular made Atget a mediocre photographer, whereas Atget was in fact perhaps the last of the truly visually passionate, intensively able to point out and unravel the soul of a city and a site. The fact that there was more drama in Atget's photographs, even for Benjamin, is suggested by the metaphor with which he described Atget's work: 'places of crime'. Nineteenth-century topographical photographs were too readily interpreted as sober and businesslike. Often, they are lyrical and dramatic.

Any reduction of images to their formal components plays into the hand of this distortion. These beautiful, monumental compositions were in theory seen in terms of the flat plane, certainly not in terms of the monuments photographed. Nineteenth-century photographs, however, were not a formal monologue, but a dialogue. Each was a reading of its subject with the instruments that photography provided. Photographic choices had a specific relationship to their subject. The photographic means were not applied autonomously, but adapted. People have done them an injustice, as if the knowledge of, the insight into, the feelings evoked by landscapes, urban districts, churches and palaces were unimportant to the creation and understanding of these images. People unjustly served them, as though the motif were of minor consideration, just an alibi for a strong image 'in its own right', while the strong image is precisely what offers a means to give form to the relationship to the subject. If the tone of the Delepierre quote sounds old-fashioned and bombastic to us, it was in fact the style in which the photographers and draughtsmen then spoke and thought.

Contemporary topographical photographers do not select the city of patrimony, do not choose 'living' sites with a coherent text. They prefer urban texts that are as unclear as possible. They moreover suggest a conceptual protocol that seems to guarantee neutrality and preclude any interpretative rejoinder. They present their subject; they seem not to react. Nineteenth-century urban photography clearly had nothing to do with this paradoxical, procedural style (in the sense that Evans spoke of a documentary style).

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