This article was originally published on Common Edge as "How Photography Profoundly Reshaped Our Ideas About Cities."
Early in the 19th century, an invention arrived that would change the form and function of cities for generations.
Like all new technologies, it started out rudimentary, expensive, and nearly ineffectual. But it caught many imaginations and developed dramatically, eventually reaching the point of mass accessibility. Soon enough, it took aim at the public realm, with consequences that were indirect and unintended yet profound.
It reconfigured streets. It influenced the height of buildings. It altered foot traffic. It recast the relationship between buildings and streets. It changed how people felt about their cities and changed their points of reference. It turned cities into abstractions and, in some ways, turned city-dwellers against each other. Its influence nearly complete by the close of World War I, the invention has remained fundamentally unchanged, and is still universally celebrated, to this day.
All this with the press of a button.
Needless to say, the gas pedal played its part too. But, for all the primacy of the way we move through cities, we must also consider how photography changed the way we saw cities and, by extension, the ways we build and experience them.
Before the invention of the camera, we could behold the world only through our own eyes. That which pleased us and functioned for us took place in fine detail. There was no distinction between sight, touch, and presence. Anything we could see, we could probably touch. Anything we could touch was by definition within our presence, ours to behold, control, and, cherish.
The detailed cityscapes of antiquity present feasts for the eyes. A Parisian side street, Beijing hutong, or Philadelphia alley, no matter how cramped, unsanitary, or inequitable, could contain entire universes of visual detail and human activity. There is no way to pull back and pan out; no way to rise above the fray.
Wide-angle views with the naked eye, such as the revelatory vista afforded by the Pont Neuf when it opened in 1607, were exceptional and special. Life was close. It took place at ground level. And that’s where beauty was found. Even in rough cities, human interaction—pairs of eyes catching other pairs of eyes—gives cities their allure. Appreciation of urban beauty found its apotheosis in the Parisian flaneur, for whom strolling and observing was its own reward.
Interestingly, the very first photo was of buildings: a heliograph called View from the Window at Le Gras taken from a second-story vantage point on the photographer’s estate in the mid-1820s. An auspicious start.
Because the earliest photographic technology measured exposure times in minutes, it was good mainly for still lifes and portraits of very patient (and very wealthy) subjects. A notable successor to the Le Gras photo came in 1838 when Louis Daguerre, the pioneer behind the technology that bears his name, shot a Paris street scene from a handful of stories above the Boulevard du Temple. Whether intended or not, Daguerre caught two apparitional figures in his frame, doing what people used to do in cities: idling.
In both of these early photographs, technology provides a new way of seeing the landscape. The street becomes an object to behold rather than a place to occupy.
The photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson marked a decisive moment in the history of photography and, indirectly, in the history of cities. “Decisive moment” was Cartier-Bresson’s own description of the challenge that photographers face. Knowing when to press the button matters every bit as much as knowing where to point the camera. A crucial, fleeting gesture can leap from banality to intrigue in the blink of a shutter.
Cartier-Bresson haunted the streets of Paris and other cities searching constantly for those moments. He found them in abundance, anonymous, intimate images that celebrate faceless humanity and urban minutiae.
Think of a Bresson image. Even a puddle or a cobblestone becomes the quintessence of Paris, because Paris is in the details. Though Bresson wielded the camera, he did not destroy Paris. He saw Paris through new technology but with an old eye. Paris formed before the camera, and so did Bresson’s sensibilities, like a grandparent who still writes longhand letters even though she could send a text message just as easily. The photographers and views who came after clung to no such quaint notions. In our reproducible age, Bresson is the exception that proves the rule.
Consider the postcard.
However you spin it, the rack at the drug store holds all sorts of images: barnyard animals, points of interest, thinly veiled advertisements for tourist traps. But if the rack is in a city, one type of image is bound to dominate: that of the skyline. From Manhattan and Los Angeles to Wichita and Toledo, there is, essentially, no American city that is not defined by its skyline—that is to say, by a photograph of its skyline.
Skylines appear on nearly every city’s website. They adorn the backdrop for nearly every local newscast. They accompany promotional materials and magazine articles. Their synecdochal power is nearly limitless. The Midwestern massif that culminates in the Willis Tower is to Chicago what the telephone booth is to London. Peachtree Plaza and its fellow Portmans are to Atlanta what the sushi bar is to Tokyo. Even the most unremarkable skylines—Des Moines, Fresno, Rochester, whatever—represent their respective cities for lack of imagination or of anything more distinctive to portray.
But, iconic and photogenic as they are, skylines belie what cities are. And they betray what cities should be.
The skyline is the image of recession. It comes into view not as you approach it but as you pull away. On foot at street level, there is no “skyline.” The eye and camera strain to capture it. Only from afar—from automobile-scale distances—does its full silhouette come into view. You cannot, by definition, behold a skyline and experience it at the same time.
The primacy of the skyline is, of course, a deception. Yes, downtowns are crucial components of their respective cities. But they rarely house the souls of their cities. For better or worse, American cities expand into vast orbitals, within which the downtown is often just a tiny nucleus. By lavishing attention on them, photographs elevate bureaucracy and business above all other urban virtues.
In the Emerald City, not only do we not know what is behind the curtain. We also do not know what lies on the ground. What are the sidewalks paved with, exactly?
But city life is overwhelmingly experienced at the street level. That’s where residents emerge from their front doors every morning. It’s where the smell of baking bread wafts out and where lines extend out the door at coffee shops. It’s where strolling takes place, and where strangers bump into each other in the first step towards becoming friends. It’s where humanity and design intersect to create culture. That’s the ideal, at least.
Secondhand images don’t eliminate these possibilities. But they routinely fail to celebrate them. They enable residents to take them for granted and, as a result, allow them to disappear or degrade. The activity, intimacy, greenery, artistry and details that appeal to pedestrians are of no concern when we define cities according to those long-distance views. Consider how, as long as we have a skyline we can be proud of, we instinctively tolerate the Starbucks in the lobby of the office tower, with a little imagination, we could just as easily have Café Schwarzenberg on one corner and Cafe Landtmann on the other. Thoughtless photographs create thoughtless attitudes.
In the 1960s and ’70s when cities were hemorrhaging, literally and demographically, a clean, distant skyline—such as that seen from a faraway suburb—was about all a city might have to recommend it. These images bred a vicious cycle, masking urban renewal and other forms of neglect. A stately bank building or old-time department store not tall enough to get into the frame might as well be a parking lot. And so they become parking lots. As long as the requisite towers stand high enough, and as long as they are viewed from far enough away, the voids below them do not matter.
It’s worth remembering that photography was also a mass-produced, mass-marketed American product.
The world has plenty of impressive skylines: Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Toronto, and so on. Even London now has a skyline, with the addition of the Shard. But most are impressive only superficially, more for the capital that went into them than for their aesthetic merit. Many of these skyscrapers seem to be competing with each other for some unnamed award for garishness.
The more midair spires, cornices, cut-outs, and light shows I see, the more inured I become. Every preening new tower belittles those that preceded it while instantly proclaiming its own ridiculousness. As Alex Marshall put recently in Governing, “when you go from the view of the skyline down to the ground, you find that these big skyscrapers sit on giant superblocks, on roads that are more highway than street.” They are usually surrounded, I might add, by pointless landscaping.
Photos make cities a purely visual experience, rather than the spiritual, emotional and sensory experience that they should be. They absolve planners and designers from creating environments that comport with what humans, at all of five or six feet tall, actually enjoy.
Of course, no single technology is causal or catalytic. The automobile, elevator, I-beam, smartphone, and many others crucial to the development of cities arose in tandem with the hubristic supernova of modernity. But to assume that photography merely reflects the environment and does not shape it would be shortsighted. As John Stilgoe teaches, locations do not become landscapes until they are seen. It’s the same reason why photographers refer to “making” photos rather than “taking” photos. Photography is active, not passive.
The image doesn’t supplant the city, but it says what’s important. It says what the city is supposed to be. We build cities the way we view cities. When we don’t value streets and don’t value humans, we get the cities we deserve. We pay little attention to detail.
Bresson knew that. His images make the city intimate. The postcard makes it impersonal, eliminating people entirely from the city. It renders the city static, antiseptic, asocial, and atomized. It reduces the city to an abstraction: an object, to behold in a single view, hold in the palm of the hand, and manipulate rather than a place to be shared and enjoyed. Like the mountains that they mimic, these “objects” can be beautiful, but at great cost.
Think of the great modern American photographers: Charles Sheeler with lifeless factories. Weegee with the bright spirit of socializing. Cindy Sherman with portraits. Robert Mapplethorpe turning bodies into sculptures. Few besides Robert Frank approach life at street level. And yet, Frank’s masterpiece, The Americans, laments suburbia and homogeneity. He captures the aftermath of de-urbanization, not the distinctive magic that used to make cities great.
Among amateurs and tourists, the most photographed street in America is brick-paved Acorn Street on Beacon Hill, dating back 400 years. Otherwise, the pedestrian’s image of America thrives far from its great cities. It thrives on main streets of small towns and in gems like Charleston, Santa Fe, Santa Barbara: our most distinctive, pleasant cities. Think of those postcards: none has glass towers to distract from their charms. The best cities are always ready for their close-ups.
The saying goes, “take only photographs, leave only footprints.” I wish it was that easy.
The photographs of which I write have made it harder to leave footprints. The cities that photography, along with its modern brethren, have wrought cannot change in the blink of a shutter. They certainly cannot change as quickly as photography is changing. We can now capture every moment – not just the decisive ones – if we want to. But let us hope that new perspectives, and heretofore unfathomable technologies, can help the old, analog world stroll back into the past.
Josh Stephens is contributing editor to the California Planning and Development Report and a freelance writer, specializing in urban planning. Based in Los Angeles, Josh writes frequently for Planetizen, Next City, and InTransition, among others. His website is joshrstephens.net.