urban landscapes

I am a professional planner and a spare time photographer. I love photography - by which I mean taking photos, making pictures and looking at photos, both arty and artless. Not surprisingly, I am fascinated by pictures of urban and suburban places – the city. I have no time for genre distinctions – landscape, street, architectural, social documentary – it’s all urban photography and there’s loads of it. Familiar pictures by Davies, Shore, Evans and others are emphatically about the city, others are unintentionally or obliquely about the city. They all show us something about the photographer’s vision and about the place.

I am endlessly fascinated by what photographs do and why they are different from both art and life. As an urban planner, I am concerned with the dynamics of the built environment, how it is shaped, how it is supposed to work, how it actually works, who benefits, who loses out. I ask myself, what do these two disciplines of photography and planning offer each other: on one hand, how do photographs help us understand the city better? And on the other hand, how can urban planning use photography in making and changing the city?

As an urbanist, my starting point is that photography cannot represent the city properly, in fact it is laughably inadequate. The photograph selects and abbreviates, simplifies and detaches the subject from context, shaves a superficial wafer off cause-and-effect, singularises a plurality, trivialises social and political complexity. And above all, two dimensional images just can't convey the experience of urban spaces. And photographs are rarely, really microcosms. I have often looked at serious, straight, flat-lit photographs of frozen city and thought, what is this picture for, what is it saying? Usually they are my own.

As a photographer then, my starting point is that these problems makes it more, not less, interesting, because photographs show us amazing things or show us ordinary things in ways that amaze. They enhance our perception and add something different to how we look, see and understand. I am compelled by photographs of the urban scene, whether taken by renowned photographer or by an anonymous snapper. I can see how a photograph distils a fact or quality of the city, usually relating to the physicality of a place, sometimes a time or atmosphere. There are interesting links between photographers’ work and urban theorists of the time, when there were common concerns being explored in different ways, like Scott Brown and Venturi writing Learning from Las Vegas while Stephen Shore photographed. However, in all photographs there is always a combination of what the photographer intended to show and what was not intended: what is revealed by the photograph as a fascinating bonus.

Critics of urban landscape photographs often miss the basic point that the photograph shows part of an actual place; the information in the photo sometimes seems too prosaic to bother with. There is a sort of visual illiteracy about the urban scene. Some critics see these photographs as a nostalgic relic of bygone days, others look for spectacle or awe inspiring edifices, crowds, nature or events. The content of urban landscape photos is often described as ‘familiar’, ‘tedious’, ‘commonplace’; or ‘harsh’, ‘dispiriting’, ‘threatening’ – clichéd suburban-bred myths of the city. The critic is much more interested in how the photographer has transformed this inconsequential material into art - identifing signs and references, shape and juxtaposition, poetry or polemic. The photographer is a looker and seer and this is the special talent, but the critic looks for ways that the photograph reveals the photographer’s approach, state of mind, private life and camera settings - and that sometimes leapfrogs the content of the photo.

So for a medium whose raw material is the real, critics veer away from the real to a rarefied world of fine art and the photographer’s impulses. Perhaps we need a different kind of urban photography criticism, which celebrates photographic seeing, which understands the subject matter and is informed about causes and effects of urban flux.

I want to explore this further, on one hand developing a form of critical review of urban photographs; on the other investigating using photography as an analytical methodology for urban planning. It is about the relationship between photography and understanding place, where interrogation of great photographs gives us hints about how we can take photographs systematically for analysing areas for policy or proposals. In this way photographs help develop visual literacy about the urban environment and the process of change. A critique of notable art and documentary photographs based on what they reveal about city form suggests ways of looking that can be formulated as methods of urban analysis.

Because on the second question - how can urbanism use photography - there would appear to be untapped potential. Photographs are used all the time in day-to-day planning practice to show prevailing circumstances at sites and to assist in decision making on development proposals. Developers use it for montages of proposals – in context, before and after. Photography is used for visual appraisal in environmental impact studies. It is used creatively in morphology and character analysis for urban design and masterplanning. It illustrates policy documents and guidance documents on housing, regeneration, car parking etc. Architects and marketeers photograph architecture looking at its best. Campaigns use photographs to illustrate heritage, dereliction, industrial decline, car parking, vandalism, etc. Of the few analytical methods that are based on photographs, there are methods to assist people to show what a place means to them; essentially subjective responses to their homes, streets and community to compile an understanding of place.

We might find such methods by interrogating photographs by a variety of practitioners. To discern what a photograph offers us, a critique can be structured. There are five elements of urban phenomena we can look for in photographs to prompt exploration of the urban environment.

First, every urban photograph has a precise mappable location, albeit sometimes unidentifiable from the picture, sometimes given in the caption. The location means geography and climate, central or marginal to the city. Sometimes the actual city location might not be known but there is enough information to discern the type of location in relation to a city structure. This helps us locate the picture within the spatial entirety of the city, because the location within a city tells us a lot about economics, the type of community, activity and travel.

Secondly, every urban photograph is taken in a place. And each photograph is partly about that place, whether intended or not, because it conveys local-specific information. Place is a geographic area with an identity, purpose and history, known and named by the people who live and work there, who know it intimately – the photographer might or might not know it. It is local. The place is the continuum outside the frame, animated by people, activity and event. It is the neighbourhood we live, the quarter we work in, the area we visit for restaurants and cinema.

Photographs are often regarded in the context of time - eg just after the war, just before the coronation, etc. similarly photos can be regarded in the context of place – the pub is a ‘local’, the shop serving the neighbourhood, Chinatown, the protestant side, a football ground hinterland. And a photographer borrows from place to make meaning - a bit like the myth of photographs stealing the subject's soul. A photograph takes from place, it might disrupt or intrude upon place.

So what is the place glimpsed in the photograph? The photographer might say 'London' or 'Shoreditch' but we might discern the Boundary Estate, or a generic, but more precise type of place - a gentrified housing area, a student campus, a canalside studio quarter. Place is the unacknowledged actual subject of many selective photographs. Or the subject is the tension between the subject and place. Place is pretty definable and finite at different scales, however place is not singular - we relate to places at different scales which overlap, eg Sharrow Vale, in Nether Edge, in Sheffield, like an address. The concept of place is the key to reading many urban photographs.

Thirdly, everything we see is land use – all land has a purpose and this generates economic value, leading to development. All the physical buildings, the activity, comings and goings reflect land use, economy and hence political power. Land use is all about settlement, shelter, work and economic process, all visible structures and their architecture reflects land ownership, costs, spending, turnover, spin-off. Land use reflects land use planning regimes, as well as evolved change, unplanned, disordered and ad hoc.

Fourthly, photographs show the present, a piece of now. We tend to look at photographs as the past, they are instruments of nostalgia or a record for posterity but are most interesting for what was 'now' when the picture was taken. Considering the ‘now’ means everyday, ordinary life; what people are up to, there then. Everyday life, not as social commentary but matter of fact, human imperatives, the interaction of people and the physical environment. Part of that ‘now’ are the ephemeral surface markings on walls and floors of an urban scene, from wear and tear, signs and controls, adverts and casual messages. These markings are part of the everyday functioning of the city, messages to the present, mementoes of the past, keeping safe, selling, warning, celebrating, deteriorating.

Fifth, an urban photograph is in a space. In the city we are always in an 'outdoor room' of some sort, an enclosure, either well enclosed like a Regency street or loosely enclosed like a superstore car park, or the landscape horizon at the city edge. The space we are in is the 'unit' of city we relate to when we are in it or passing through; it forms the limit of what we see, until we move into a different 'room'. An urban photograph describes part of that space from which we might intimate the whole, but it does it inadequately, it is impossible to convey the shape and experience of a 360 degree space. In each case the interest is in the scale of that space relative to a person or the object of the photo and the purpose of the space.

Crucially, that space may be public or private, accessible or hidden. This resonates with land use. The quality of space is the main generator of character, most spaces are not simple and not easy to describe but physically very definite. Many urban photographs focus attention on a single object in the picture, a building, monument or person. This can either eliminate space or reveal the shape of space.

The space within which the photograph is taken provides the only clues about topography – the lie of the land, and morphology – the urban form of the buildings and streets. Both of these things are easily understood on maps but will usually be lost in a photograph. On the ground, details may provide hints about the underlying landscape form such as a hillside, glimpses of forest between buildings, and the imposed urban form such as a corner of a street grid or a meandering wall. The natural materials of the buildings will say something about the geology and vegetation of the land.

Through this construct of critique / methodology, we can possibly expand our use of photography in urban planning. Translating the originality, creativity and unique vision of photographers into visual methods for urbanists - a systematic application of photography to obtain fresh perspectives on the city. Some photographer’s work seems to bear witness to specific urban theories, reflecting an awareness and set of concerns that revealed itself at the time in different kinds of observation, research and analytical models. It is about exploiting the unique properties of the photographic image, which reveals visual fact, gives weight and meaning to detail and ephemera and repackages space. So by considering location and place, land use, the ‘now’ of the everyday, and containment of space in a picture, we might read photographs and get insights about the flux of the city life. It’s a theory, it needs some examples.


Photographs of places and expanding our visual literacy

Roger Estop



Essays on Urban Landscape Photography