Invisible Cities


Tuesday, May 19th, 2009 - Nicholas Calcott

©2009 Ken Schles
A spread from Ken Schles’ excellent book ‘Invisible City‘, © 2009 Ken Schles

…Finally the journey leads to the city of Tamare.  You penetrate it along streets thick with signboards jutting from the walls. The eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things: pincers point out the tooth-drawer’s house; a tankard, the tavern; halberds, the barracks; scales, the grocer’s…

Photography has clearly always had a relationship with the city like no other representational medium; when we think of the historical subjects of painting, more often than not, a landscape or classical tableau pops into our heads; with sculpture it is the human form: but with photography it is the signs and forms and dramas that play out in the city.  This is not simply a historical coincidence – photography came about at just the time that cities began to be thought of as bastions of progress: No longer were they acretions of teeming masses of animalistic humanity, but instead as places to which an enlightened mind might apply reasonable principles that would lead to a utopia here on earth. In Paris, Haussman simplified the boulevards and streets, setting it up as the perfect stage for the “theater of the street,” the visual play of unexpected meetings and juxtapositions, captured by photography’s increasing technical ability to freeze moments in time.  This is even more evident with the invention of handheld cameras, and reaching a renaissance with the explosion of work done in New York in the 40′s, 50′s, and 60′s…

…Your gaze scans the streets as if they were written pages: the city says everything you must think, makes you repeat her discourse, and while you believe you are visiting Tamara you are only recording the names with which she defines herself and all her parts…

Calvino’s novel obviously takes as its prime subject the City and cities in general.  But it also speaks of photography.  Not, of course, that the word even appears in the book.  Nor does anything related to a camera, a frame, an enlarger or any of the tools which we would hold at the core of what photography is.  What does appear, however, is a suspicious litany of the effects of photography.  It traces out the juxtapositions rendered visible by photography’s gaze – sometimes literally, too; in one story, Calvino describes relationships in the city traced out with string, creating a tangle in place of a city.

Even the section titles are indicative: Cities & Names, Cities & Signs, Cities & Eyes, Cities & Memory, etc. etc.  Calvino names the ways we relate to each other in the city, sometimes describing how we are connected using glances, models, graves, and any number of symbols, all of which stand in for the efficiency of a camera.  In Calvino’s book, a memorable affair is likely to be captured in a thing such as a zodiac saved to remind the narrator of what occured.  In our world that zodiac is a photograph.

…However the city may really be, beneath this thick coating of signs, whatever it may contain or conceal, you leave Tamara without having discovered it.  Outside, the land stretches, empty, to the horizon; the sky opens, with speeding clouds. In the shape that chance and wind give the clouds, you are already intent on recognizing figures: a sailing ship, a hand, an elephant…

-all blockquotes from Italo Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities

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