Exhibition review: Luminous Cities
Luminous Cities, the photography exhibition now on at the NGV International, is like a capsule that takes one on an odyssey through space and back in time — hurtling through the 19th century from the ruins of Rome, down the dusty streets of Pompeii, then sweeping into the 20th century across the lyrical backstreets of Paris, along the romantic lanes of Melbourne before finally tumbling from the dazzling 1930s New York skyscrapers, with a sobering thud, into the belly of a grim American urban life after the Second World War.
The exhibition — selected from NGV’s permanent collection — has been thoughtfully curated by Susan Van Wyk. While the classic black/white images capture physical qualities of major metropolises at various times — preserving a visual slice of history for posterity — it is their vivid reflection of the inveterate zeitgeist of the different periods that affords the exhibition its depth and complexity.
In the mid nineteenth century, there was an aristocratic taste for ‘decorative ruins’ and heritage cities, thence the rationale for the plethora of ancient shots during that period such as The (crumbling) Erectheum in the Acropolis and decaying masonry in Rome. Interestingly, it was also in that period when photography emerged as a respectable medium which soon found itself engaged in a symbiotic relationship with the revered disciplines of architecture and archaeology: just as the academic output was the subject of artistic expression, so too was photography equally an accurate documentation of built-up and excavated sites for studies in the academic pursuits.
In the latter part of the nineteenth century, major cities in Europe and Britain — particularly Paris and London — were extensively redeveloped. While most photographers faithfully recorded the change processes and juxtaposed new edifices with old facades, others lamented the supplanting of old city charm with new power symbols. One especially moving work, Coin de la rue Valette et Pantheon, 5e arrondissement, matinee de mars, is by Eugene Atget. Featuring an overcast back alley prominently in the foreground that leads to the monumental Pantheon — the putative mausoleum of splendour– obscured in the glare of sunlight and fading in the distant, it is a nostalgic elegy to the rapidly vanishing milieu.
Coin de la rue Valette et Pantheon, 5e arrondissement, matinee de mars
By the twentieth century, New York had displaced London as the vanguard city of the epoch. Photographers were obsessed with the city’s spectacular skylines. By day, they articulated the buildings’ dizzying heights; by night, they spoke to the electric lights that glitter like stars from windows in the sky. Two memorable works include Edward Steichen’s The Maypole and Berenice Abbot’s New York at night. The former is an intriguing image of the Empire State Building. Through deft superimposition of multiple images one on another taken with neck-arching perspectives, Steichen created an almost motion-image (resembling the whirling Maypole) to elucidate a vortex of activity and its breathtaking size. One feels dwarfed in its presence.
Conversely, Abbot’s work — an aerial vision of New York at night — grants to one an imperious ‘master of the universe’ omnipresence. With night lights sparkling like jewels from nearly every window and roads shimmering like chains, the work is a vignette of the heady jazz age, with no skerrick of the Great Depression being felt then across the nation.
As one progresses into the interwar years, attention shifts to Germany which was regarded as the avant-garde city of the time. Photographers experimented with ‘compressed space, dizzying perspectives and eccentric vantages [to] confound our expectations of how buildings should be photographed.’ The Hungarian Laszlo Moholy-Nagy was among the foremost artists in this genre. His Blick vom Radioturm epitomises how perspectives may be manipulated by the camera lens in disquieting ways.
In the decades following the Second World War, photographers strove to delve into the nuanced complexities of a city, negotiating between innovation and decay, chaos and order, isolation and community. Bill Brandt’s A snicket in Halifax, Australian Grant Mudford’s New York and Lee Friedlander’s Stamford Connecticut are disconcerting limnings of these.
While the cities on display here may not all be luminous (in expression or in emotion), they most certainly illuminate one’s understanding of the world (of/and photography) through the clattering shutters of the camera.
22nd October 2010 – 13 March 2011