What’s it all about?

Last time we spied paste-up street art in the city. For YSOM P2 the focus shifts to ‘Street Photography’ which, as can be seen from conversations with contributors to our companion Urban Notebook site, is a contentious appellation.

We think we know what we’re going to see. We live and work in cities, are familiar with the atmospheres: urgent and ambivalent, enclosed and panoramic, frozen and fluid. We are practised in the myriad forms of urban encounter. We’re metropolitan, cosmopolitan, nothing can surprise us. But what remarkable street photography does is remind us that the city is fundamentally unknowable or rather there are always more facets and perspectives yet to be discovered, the city can never be imaged with any sort of conclusive finality.

Hines, Levitt, Arbus exposed the urban through its inhabitants; Stieglitz construed an idealised Modernist metropolis; Abbot foretold the illegibility of Postmodern cities; Kertesz and Cartier-Bresson found cities in fleeting instants; Friedlander re-framed life on the road; Winogrand revisited surreal aspects of the metropolis; Leiter explored urban layering with wit and a painterly sensibility: more than a century of cities created moment by moment, favourites all.

But there’s an obvious omission. And one that comes up time and again as both a historical and contemporary point of reference. In the late 19th and beginning of the 20th century Eugène Atget trawled the alleyways, streets and market squares of Paris and left us with a record of pre-WWI city life that sometimes suggests an almost medieval quality. Fish arranged across a bed of freshly cut fern fronds on the Rue Mouffetard; spoke-wheeled carts in courtyards and ‘ancien passages’; windmills, wooden shacks and dirt tracks of Montmarte. He created images that, as Françoise Reynaud noted, achieve ‘a total absence of any reference to the traditional conventions of framing and composition, and an uncommon interest in supposedly non ‘artistic’ subjects. They showed the everyday environment without embellishment whatsoever, and realities that would otherwise pass unnoticed.’

So, seeking ways to give accounts of the city as process, adopting, re-adapting and sloughing off prior approaches and conventions. From Latour and Hermant’s portrayal of an invisible city; Slinkachu’s urban psychological dramas in miniature; Stephen Gill’s re-presentations of the city in multiple registers… A panopoly of minds and means that together help to remind us of the city as staccato micro-moments as well as a stage for sprawling and variable Daedalian flux.