What City-Builders Can Learn From Street Photographers
A loved city so often defies logic: it could be gritty and smelly, prohibitively expensive or even a bit dangerous. But somehow, they foster public life, culture and community; they are spaces for people, and the ultimate platform for our efforts and aspirations. For this reason, they are magnetic.
Yet, practitioners of city-building – architects, developers, municipal governments – rarely have a grasp on this, all too often divorcing their experiences in their own communities, from their work. A giveaway: when they conceptualise (and sell) everything from buildings and neighbourhoods to regeneration projects and city-wide plans, cities are shown in sunny, summer-time, spotlessly clean, middle-class renders, or in photography that is so straight-on, so linear, so clear and unambiguous. Is that the way we should be thinking about cities?
[When selling city-wide plans] ‘cities are shown in sunny, summer-time, spotlessly clean, middle-class renders. Is that the way we should be thinking about cities?’
There is, however, an alternative – a way of representing and reading cities that captures their essence, that merges a humanism and an elevating aesthetic. That is: street photography.
From legends such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Garry Winogrand and Vivian Maier, to today’s many accomplished, engaging image-makers (Michelle Groskopf, Clarissa Bonet, or Ronya Galka), there is an inexhaustible archive and talent pool to draw from.
Why is street photography a tool for city-builders?
It has attitude and style, it captures not just streets or buildings ‘in use’ – as does the standard imagery of the city-building industries – but forces the built environment back into its place: as a background to human life.
For those responsible for the bricks-and-mortar, it’s crucial not to view what they’re creating as a ‘product’ but as a service. The ultimate image of building isn’t as an object, but as a backdrop, or a frame. (Not to say that buildings shouldn’t be beautiful, even ornate, and finely-crafted.)
They are places for us to not just to be-as-renders (shopping in farmers markets or chatting with our friends in landscaped plazas). They are where we live the highs and lows of life: stealing a first kiss with a new love, getting into arguments, sunbathing, a child having a tantrum and, yes, day-drinking hen dos, complete with phallic balloons and custom sashes. And why not?
A vibrant city should encourage public life – what is often reduced to cliché language in marketing material and white papers (“vibrant streets”). Yet, the way the city-building industries imagine cities is largely flattened, cleaned-up, one-dimensional. And it has an effect.
Street photographers, those ultimate ethnographer-artists, can teach us a lot. What is it that their eye sees? What are the elements of a scene, a moment, that contain that mystical urban magic that makes us fall in love with a place – even with its grime. In making cities we should think more like them, understanding both a technical side of the task at hand but allowing for people’s spontaneous, individual, unexpected behaviours to shine through. Too often city-builders fight against this; the street photographer makes it art.