“Magnolia, Palermo.” Courtesy of Domingo Milella.
I think my Invisible Cities post should have made it abundantly clear that I’m obsessed with how cities are made up and visualized, the psychogeography of cities, if you will. For the hell of it, I’ll put out there the rest of my must read list on this topic: Jonathan Rabin’s ‘Soft City,’ Shelley Rice’s ‘Parisian Views,’ Peter Schneider’s ‘The Wall Jumper,’ and I fully expect the new BLDGBLOG book to make the list as well. Also of note, though not directly addressing this topic are Dante’s ‘Inferno‘ (which is really an odd book about a city), Marco Polo’s ‘Travels‘, and ‘Cities‘ by John Reader. [Let me know in the comments if you have your own books to add to this list.]
Along these lines (and obliquely mentioned in a post about a year ago) is a really really interesting way of picturing the city I’ve seen popping up here and there over the last couple of years. Unlike, say, Gary Winogrand or another Street Photographer, it’s not so much concerned with the life in a city as with the life of a city.
That is to say to photograph the city a little like a living organism, like a lichen spreading out and in and up in it’s given space. I suppose this has been technique has been applied before, most notably by Robert Adams with his The New West (coincidentally recently republished by Aperture), but whereas the New Topographics were concerned with how man was changing the American landscape, these photographers seem more obsessed by how the inner ecology of a city changes itself.
The ‘gee wow’ parallel here would be how Adams migrated from picturing the exurbs of Colorado to photographing forest and nature (albeit in a way with which man’s presence is always if not on the surface than at least near it), and the most direct pictoral line I can mentally draw is from Thomas Struth. Struth, of course, is well known for many different things, but among them his eerily still city views, frequently taken in the morning with no traffic or sign of life, but with an architectural photographers eye with no one structure to monumentalize. From there he moved on to his ‘Paradise‘ photographs, images of all consuming jungle whose apparent simplicity of subject matter belied a complex compositional instinct and a clearly biblical referent.
It’s easy to see strong similarities between Struth’s ‘Paradise’ series and Domingo Milella‘s work, for example. Milella, too uses a large format camera, but instead of Adam’s and Struth’s relations to the Edenic myth, Milella’s work is about a tower of Babel – A pile of garbage extends from the foreground where it is creeping into a stream up into a series of apartment blocks to the suburbs on a hillside – a cemetery crowded and colorful like a market or slum – a tree that seems to explode out of the ground but receives no more notice than as a subject for tourists’ photographs.
Karin Apollonia Müller too has her weird echoes of biblical judgment – houses cracking in half in the ‘On Edge‘ series and ad posters inexplicable ripped to pieces while life around them mysteriously continues. In her ‘Timeshots‘ series, we see a homeless camp in one photo later covered over by a large and expanding construction site.
In both these photographers work the city moves, expands, and contracts, subject to forces internal and external, reacting to its environment and in some cases failing to, but always continuing. Their work seems to be to document the ebbs and flows of the city, not as a stage for human interaction but as one giant network subject to its own logic independent of any individual within it.
Related: Sze Tsung Leong, Oliver Sieber’s ‘Imaginary Club,’ Niels Stomps’ ‘Mist,’ and Nils Clauss‘ ‘Deciphering Seoul.’
Misc.: Domingo Milella, in an e-mail exchange concerning this post, had a wonderful quote: “Photographs are the visual sponge of the technocratic age, and the time of machines hides inside them.”