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From The Nature of Cities:

Ask any two travelers about their experience in the same city and you will hear about two different cities. They will tell you about a meal they had, a museum they visited, the shops they found, the entertainment, the traffic, the noise, the sex, the dirt, the style, or the misery of the people. Some of these consumables attract my attention too, but something else, tangible yet somewhat ineffable, draws my deeper curiosity. How does a city achieve its particular impression? Why does it resonate in me the way that it does? Why do I have a certain feeling on a street in Paris and another in Los Angeles?

I admit to loving cities. There is a wildness to them, a sense of the unknown. In that way they are like nature. The invisible meaning of cities lies, for me, in the substance of the city itself. The space speaks to me first, in concert with the materials that create it; stainless steel and glass, marble and granite, brick and shingle, concrete and glittering asphalt, fountains, boulevards, parks, towers, monuments, all describing or filling a space, all bristling with energy. Walking through this field of energy I suddenly come upon a square, a crossroads, an empty lot; by what magic it has hold of me I do not know. Call it visceral or spiritual, I know something is there - the way a Native American or Australian Aborigine knows a charmed or holy site in the landscape. In a city - a totally man-made place - it is most likely through proportion, mass, emptiness, materials, or light that we get a message. Who knows over what ancient hallowed ground the current city resides? All I know is if I "feel" something I stop. It is not my eyes that first take in the sensory field in front of me, but some intuition more primitive. When it arises I've learned to go lightly and let it hold me. It is here, in the brief moment of navigating this subtle resistance, that photographic sensibility comes to life. Stay a moment, come awake to the call - see what is out there, apparent and invisible - and you may make an original, personal recognition - a photograph, a description of your own awake-ness. If you choose not to stay then the moment flows into the next moment and the next and you move on.

Cities often gain the sense of physical power and presence in relation to their orientation to the light. New York is a brilliant example of the right orientation. Although it is a northern city its solar arrangement is pitched as perfectly as a sundial. New York is tough, flinty, glinting. The rock it sits on is schist: a glittery, mica-flecked stone that dazzles the eye. New York has picked up its character from its bedrock; everything here shines, from the roadway to the skyscraper tops. The seasonal light serves this city well; sultry and suffused in summer, almost tropical, beveled and bright in fall, brittle and all edges in winter. In fact it is easy to forget that Manhattan is an island and New York a seacoast city with the sea's particular light. Its avenues run north and south, a photographers dream. Walk on the sunny side of Fifth Avenue heading north and you have the light at your back, while everyone coming toward you is both brilliantly illuminated and partially blinded, giving you the advantage of being able to photograph in broad daylight yet remain somewhat invisible. A particular breed of photographer loves the theater of the city streets. Think of the scale of this stage where human beings are seen against a backdrop of sixty story sky-scrapers! Nowhere is the human comedy more boldly visible than on the streets of New York City. Movement is ceaseless, but not without grace. One's gestures and timing in the street, the subway, the elevator have to be as precise as a matador's, as agile as a dancer's and as swift as an athlete's. One can glimpse these brief performances a hundred breathtaking times a day if only you lift your eyes to what is around you. Cities demand acute attention in order to be fully enjoyed - of course we say that about life too.

Given the city's density it is amazing that one can stand at the corner of Fifty Seventh Street and Fifth Avenue and see all the way down to lower Manhattan. A shaft of light like the flight of an arrow cleaves through the concrete and glass leaving you with the sense that you can possess all that you see. The cross-streets, running east and west, draw into the heart of the city the cool rich blend of two rivers and the scent of roasting coffee from the Jersey shore. In early morning or on a summer's evening golden beams skitter off every surface like lasers, burnishing fire-escapes, pediments, manhole covers, the very bricks in a molten crescendo of fiery light.

St. Petersburg, also, is a city which combines the phenomena of light and location. I have not experienced its long winter night, but I have walked through the exalted White Nights of summer. St. Petersburg is modern in the sense of the city as a concept. A Czar, indulging his fantasy with a force greater than the Pharaohs, hurled an entire Seventeenth Century Italian city into a swamp in the Bay of Finland. There it sits, a Southern European city on the brow of Mother Russia, complete with palaces, parks, boulevards, bridges, canals, churches and fortress, all dressed in Tuscan colors, rose and violet, siena and olive, crimson and gold. There is something wonderfully unreal about it. It is a haunting city. Perhaps it is the magnitude of the vision and effort which gives it this haunting quality. This mystery is aided and intensified by the endurance of the light, which is at once uplifting and elegiac. Sunset goes on for hours, spreading longer and longer beams through groves of trees in the parks, across the vast parade grounds, down gritty side streets worn out from the hardship and lean years of socialism. A crust of grime covers the buildings where colors have been muddied by time and neglect. The street proportions here are like nowhere else. The city blocks are relentlessly long and the buildings brutally repetitive, unrelieved by flower-boxes or awnings. Sunlight on their facades is like rouge on the cheeks of an old woman. Perhaps that is part of the haunting quality: the cruelty of artifice on the face of the real. The light traces its way over cornice and dome, edges balustrade and battlements, ranges along the unbroken embankment girding the Neva, bringing hope and warmth. Along this light-gilded wall I saw more lovers than I ever saw in Paris. The sun drew them out of their dingy housing and rallied them along the Water's Edge where briefly, like moths, they played in the light.

We have all experienced cities that feel exhausted or that make us feel that way. Cities whose relation to the light leaves them dark and gloomy. In time people stop walking there. They begin to drive to and from the old center. As businesses fail and the city comes apart, parking garages and empty lots punctuate and deteriorate the city wall. These new spaces, like accidental piazzi, open the city up to radical, new perspectives. If you are a walker in these cities you may benefit from their malaise in surprising ways. Like a cartographer you may map the city to your own design, seeing through it, as if the plan of the city, its logic, was seen in a new way precisely because of this current failure which, oddly, gives it a fresh dramatic presence. Unexpected pools of shadow lie next to blazing sunlight. Nature reappears in wild variety in the midst of the financial district. Old walls from the last century border a sleek new building clad in pink granite with bronzed windows girded by black anodized mullions: a modern architectural version of the time-worn image of the old crone and the whore, right there on the street.

The space in the city begins to take on a resounding, surreal quality like the spaces in the paintings of Edward Hopper and DiChirico. I found St. Louis exciting because of this modern dilemma; one that challenges many older, mid-size cities in America. The more time I spent in St. Louis the more aware I became of the emptiness of the streets, the eerie quiet and solemnity, even in midday. Minor events took on seemingly great significance. Two figures stopped in conversation on an empty street, seem as eternal as statuary. Down by the river whole trees were thrown on the bank, like a boneyard of leavings from forests far to the north. Architectural elements, innocent and functional suddenly seemed to bear down upon the street with sepulchral weight. Perhaps it is the luxury of being a stranger in a city that arouses this attribution of mysterious qualities to ordinary things. I'd like to think that these free-form connections come up out of some reservoir of knowledge we carry in us more realized than we suspect, which is dampened by our habitual responses to our familiar surroundings and then set free when we travel.

Every city has a celebrated monument that sets it apart; a tower or cathedral, a square or park. St. Louis has the Arch. I found it deeply moving, profound. There were days when, standing beneath the Arch, I felt I knew the power of the pyramids. It was restorative, contemplative. It was more than a technological marvel or a symbol. It was pure form, the beauty of mathematics, a drawing on the heavens, perfect pitch. It was constant and it was never the same. Light and color made their way over its surface. I have seen the Arch change from a white you could not look at to black in broad daylight. I have seen it disappear, reflect like a mirror, and turn pink, sometimes all in one day. I remember mountains doing that. Standing beside it, one sees human scale diminish as when a figure stands at the ocean's edge. It contains the space that cathedrals aspire to. You feel it most when you submit to it.

The experience is similar with another monument, perhaps the greatest icon of the Twentieth Century, the Empire State Building. With it was born the term Sky-Scraper. The word itself has the charm of a Native American chant. This building is to New York as Mt. Fuji is to Japan. Formal, mythic, constant, yet ever-changing. The Empire State Building is the pylon around which I turned during this particular photographic inquiry. From river to river, from Harlem to the Battery, I looked at the connection between ordinary life down on the streets and Sky-Scraper. I wanted to see if, as in Hokusai's prints of Mt. Fuji, there might be a connection between the humble daily lives of the inhabitants and this majestic form.

Ask a question and you have to be prepared for any answers that arise. The Fuji question is really asking, in photographic terms, what happens when you use a nominal subject, such as the Empire State Building or the Arch, as a lever to lift a hidden, larger subject onto the plane of visibility? Is there a state where revelations about both are achieved, and coming together, they produce a "third voice," a fresh new view of the whole? This is what challenged me in Atlanta.

I was invited to photograph a new skyscraper and its relation to the city. Since Atlanta sits on essentially flat or gently rolling terrain this structure was visible everywhere. I chose a circling movement as my operating principle. I started photographing at the base of the building and went out in continuously wider circles, for over a year, until I was as far away as thirty miles. What I saw was more than a mere building and its surroundings. I witnessed the eternal contest between man the builder and nature the reclaimer. Nature is fierce in the American South. This fecund, hot, brooding region produces vegetation at such a rate that if you turn your back on it swallows sidewalks, powerlines, shopping plazas in record time. Everywhere I looked, within the sight-line of the building, I saw old neighborhoods and woodlands threatened by the developers. Nature was taking a beating for yet another corporate tower, another set of identical, faceless houses, another shopping mall with the same stores as the last one just a few minutes down the road. The aim seemed to be to denude the land of anything that grew, pave it over with concrete, put a few scrawny saplings back here or there, in a pot or decorative island of green, anything to control the environment. Wherever I went, old trees lay battered and toppled as if by Herculean force. It was unbearably sad to me. I saw unreasoned, insatiable greed in the form of spent trees. I sensed no one was learning anything from this. That it was all acceptable in the name of progress. We have all seen and heard this before. This conflict is not new, but it hurt more deeply this time. In Atlanta I was an active witness and I could not turn my back on what I saw.

I began to look at that building as if it were a bomb, the cause of silent devastation. It seemed to me to be like a pebble thrown in a pond, whose ripples go out in all directions, roiling the equilibrium of the surface. So too here, the shock waves rolled over communities, industry, open green land, the invisible fabric of human desire and it does it again and again and again.




© 2003-2006 Joel Meyerowitz Photography, LLC. All rights reserved.