18 Feb 2021
Urban Photography: Capturing the City
We delve into the world of urban photography, looking at photographers who capture sensitive portrayals of the domestic and city life
With a focus on studies of people, objects and elements within an urban environment, urban photography becomes an important visual commentary on the world. The desire to capture urban surroundings has often been used by amateur photographers throughout history. Often, as a way to both document and decipher the intrigue of human behaviour. In particular, urban photographs mostly become candid portrayals of everyday life. Simultaneously, reminding us of a history that isn’t composed purely of monumental events but of one that glorifies the mundane.
Across race, age and class, urban photography offers a comprehensive study of social and political culture at specific moments in time. Whilst infrastructures change, what remains at the core of photographing the urban world is based in emotion and ritual. Photographing the modern world remains a medium used by contemporary photographers. These photographs depict the evolving world and are still instrumental in our understanding of it today. We’ll explore the work of photographers capturing the observed musings of urban living, in particular works by Shomei Tomatsu , Vivian Maier, Julius Shulman and Nan Goldin, to name a few…
Photography within urban environments is typically defined as being taken within public cityscapes, often through a candid lens. The voyeuristic viewpoint of the urban photographer rose to prominence in the 1890s, up until the 1970s. As cameras became more advanced, photography became more popular amongst the general public as well as artists. Photographing the urban became a way in which to document the rapid changes culturally and the developments in the modern world.
American photographer Vivian Maier’s large collection of photographs were discovered after her death in 2009 at the age of 83. Crucially, she left behind 40,000 unseen photographic slides. Her post-humous collection shows captured fragments of the 1950s onwards. For over 40 years, Maier worked as a nanny in Chicago, giving her the ability to roam the streets with her camera. In her vast body of work she predominantly focuses on capturing modern life in an ever-changing 20th century world.
Looking closely at her portraits of passers by, as well as her self portraits in mirrors, windows and shop fronts we see her disguised and hidden often. One of the most interesting parts of Maier’s work are these self portraits. The photographs give us an insight into her secretive world. As a photographer, Maier kept her work completely concealed her whole life giving great weight to her concealed and private process.
To summarise, Maier embraces artistic freedom in her urban photographs, simultaneously embracing the joy of colour photography. Maier’s artistic legacy reveals itself like a detective story. Her life as a nanny and secret photographer depict an incredibly mysterious life lead. Her urban colour photographs become recollections of her various positions around the city and their children, giving insight to culture at the time.
Neither menial nor curated, photographer Nan Goldin’s work regularly portrays day to day life within a city. She is most known for her intensely personal portraiture, particularly focused on the LGBTQ community and the 1980s Aids crisis. Predominantly, her urban photographs have been taken in New York. Although Goldin’s work commonly includes friends, acquaintances and members of the public, they give viewers an honest insight into city life. Through these portraits, she reveals inner city life in all of it’s grit and glamour.
‘For me it is not a detachment to take a picture. It’s a way of touching somebody—it’s a caress,” she said of the medium. “I think that you can actually give people access to their own soul.’ Nan Goldin
The artist began capturing photos of friends and the world around her as a teenager. In these sensitive portrayals, initially Goldin depicts issues that were important to her. These values extend past her family, friends and most crucially to the public. In this case, her urban photographs are emotively portrayed and inform us of the 1980s environment.
Photographer Julius Shulman is mostly known for his architectural photography, but here we look at his portrayals of the 1960s American lifestyle. For one of his most well known photographs, he took to architect Pierre Koenig’s ‘Stahl House’ in Los Angeles. In comparison to the nature of Maier and Goldin’s ‘happened upon’ compositions, here Shulman curates the image. The astounding modernist design sets the focus for this insight into the city in 1960 America.
“The key to my work is that I stopped, physically, to observe something. I raised my camera and recorded my observations” Julius Shulman
In this case, his 1960 photograph ‘Case Study House No.22, Los Angeles’ shows the minimalistic interiors of the famous modernist property. The image becomes an embodiment of elegance and glamour, in particular drawing attention to the new ways of living in modernity. In a similar way to those discussed, in short Shulman uses photography to document specific snapshots of every day life and the times he was living in. This was a common theme amongst urban photographers and still remains today.
The exact compositions reveal not just the architectural elements of each building but the vision of an age. Much like the photographic work of Goldin, Shulman presents us with a sense of humanity. He captures a lost world, many of the buildings have since been taken down yet these images remain. His urban photographs show us the unapologetic expectations and glitz of the 1960s.
American photographer Gary Winogrand transformed the medium of street and urban photography into a respected art form. It is clear in his photographic work that rather than standing afar, often he stood in amongst his subjects. By doing this, he aimed to capture a feeling rather than a detached observation. In particular, through his use of a wide angle lens, he seems to always been in the centre of each scene. Here he is surrounded by the subjects of his photographs, importantly capturing the energy of environment.
It has been suggested that his images depict the American national experience, each photograph becoming a ‘collected experience’. Typically, Winogrand would include multiple figures in his images, most often with multiple viewpoints. Subsequently, the photographs become chaotic, reflective of political and social unrest at certain moments in history. In particular, his chaotic approach seems very specific to his photographic style in his urban photographs.
“There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described. I photograph to see what something will look like photographed” Garry Winogrand
Alicja Dobrucka celebrates the city at night through her photography in her ‘Nico‘ series. In particular, the photographs were all taken whilst she lived in Tokyo in 2016. She takes as her subject both the buildings and the characters she meets in her favourite bar, Nico, always at night. She juxtaposes the two sides of this world where the inside echoes the outside. Accordingly, the light and shadows within her urban photographs depict a calm, eery and magical world full of possibilities. With the cloak of night time, the city becomes a stage for action and narrative.
Alicja Dobrucka is a Polish photographer, above all, her photography often focuses on cultural identity and cultural transfer. Alicja’s artistic practice explores the new possibilities that come out of encounters, particularly made whilst photographing city life. Her projects importantly pose questions about vulnerability, youth, motherhood, as well as domesticity. All in all, her urban photographs portrayal a world seen through a specific lens. In many ways, we feel the connections made with the place or person in these haunting photographic depictions.
Photographer Shomei Tomatsu is perhaps the most influential in his field of the post-war era in Japan. During the social and political change in 1950s and 1960s Japan, Tomatsu decided to document through a surreal lens. His urban photographs are visceral depictions, in this case of passers-by on the streets of Tokyo. Much alike to those discussed, he chose to focus on the everyday and underground culture within the city of Tokyo. For his compositions, he often chooses outsiders of the city as his subjects, such as prostitutes, hippies and artists residing on the outskirts of the city.
“A single photograph is a mere fragment of an experience and, simultaneously, the distillation of the entire body of one’s experience” Shomei Tomatsu
In his body of work, one of his most famous series are his portraits of survivors of the atomic explosion in Nagasaki, during the war. In the same way as photographers such as Vivian Maier and Julius Shulman did, Tomatsu also took to the streets to document the general public. However, Tomatsu’s portrayals of city everyday life coincided with the terrors of a violent war. His urban photographs show the social culture of Japanese cities during a time of such unrest, through his voyeuristic lens. In comparison, although his photographs have the quality of a voyeur’s lens, he does tend to abstract the imagery. A sense of abstracted movement is intended in his black and white photographs, contributing to his honest portrayals of such a turbulent era.
As a means of recording social culture throughout history, accordingly urban photographers have become instrumental in doing this. Through the studying of human interactions, objects and environments, we are able to understand historical events through snapshots of people who lived through them. It seems to be the case that some of the most prominent and emotive urban photographs in photographic history have stemmed from amateur beginnings. These photographs have been instrumental in terms of documentation but crucially, they remind us of our relation to the wider world.