Monday, 28 November 2011

Seminar 5 - ‘The Contemporary Urban Environment’

The city as an environment can be difficult to locate in that it exists as a shifting and fragmented entity. The city has no fixed identity and cannot be approached from a ‘mere’ singular point of view. Contemporary photographers critically explore the city in its endless multiplicity and find new visual methodologies to translate their concepts. Rut Blees Luxembour, Richard Wentworth and Vera Lutter are just some of the photographers that have photographed the urban space with different approaches, but also by having several similarities. Here I am going to deconstruct and analyse the different approaches that these photographers have used to photograph the urban environment.
Rut Blees Luxembourg, ‘Piccadilly’s Peccadilloes’, 2007

British Modernism 2006 by Rut Blees Luxemburg is one of 10 new works depicting Piccadilly line stations as part of the centenary celebrations. The images have all been taken at stations designed by architect Charles Holden. This image shows Cockfosters. 
Holden’s vision was one of modernity. His bold and dynamic buildings, built on the back of rapid developments in technology, science, literature, art and social strategy, still stand as monuments to the ambitions of a generation of people in pursuit of a better future.
Blees Luxemburg is best known for her photographic works that explore the ambitions and failures of the modern project in Britain. Her particular interest is in revealing moments where this history appears in dense layers within the physical forms of the location.

Rut Blees Luxembourg, Feuchte Blatter (Moist Leaves Moist Sheets), 1998
Rut Blees Luxembourg, Die Ziehende (The Wandering Depth), 1999

These two works by German artist Rut Blees Luxemburg are part of a body of fourteen photographs, titled Liebeslied (Lovesong), taken between 1997 and 2000. Influenced by the German Romantic poetry of Friedrich Holderlin (1770-1843), the images present an intimate portrayal of the London landscape at night. Shot using a large-format camera using long exposures, the images capture the melancholy stillness of the city illuminated by the glow of ambient street light. Glossy surfaces of water shifting over concrete and leaves reflected in a puddle; reveal the power and beauty of the natural world emerging through the filter of the urban environment.

In ‘Liebeslied’ Luxembourg found herself drawn to spaces where nature somehow still managed to exist within the city, and where it also controlled her work through its cycle. She had to wait for it to stop raining, so that the puddles’ surfaces was clear and not broken, to reveal what was reflected in them. So nature dictated a different kind of rhythm to her, which she finds is really important: to help her connect with nature, but in whatever perverse way it still existed within the city.

All three of these images by Luxembourg show a similar response to the city, using puddles to create reflections of buildings and the urban city space. Her first image ‘Piccadilly’s Peccadilloes’ is a much clearer image whereas the other two are more blurry which gives them that melancholy feeling. Lutter and Luxembourg both use long exposures to create their images, making their technical approach and final outcome look similar. Both photographers work look unrealistic, they don’t capture any real detail of the urban space; they are either blurred images or just a mix of different tonal shapes.

Richard Wentworth ‘Making do and getting by’ 1999

The series ‘Making Do and Getting By’ observes the ingenuity of humankind in the appropriation and adaption of everyday objects for new uses, new meanings, and new narratives. He uses photography as a means of documenting what might be called 'the sculpture of the everyday': A wellington boot becomes a doorstop, a cup becomes a window prop and a brick and piece of board become a ramp. 'i live in a ready-made landscape', he remarked early in his career, 'and i want to put it to use'.

Richard Wentworth is best known as a sculptor whose work tends to focus on the idea of transformation in alteration and juxtaposition of everyday objects. Looking at his works our perception of our world is changed too, because of the alteration of the connotations of those objects and their inherent symbolism. 

Wentworth’s approach to the urban space is very different to Lutter and Luxembourg as he looks at simple everyday objects that would often go unseen by people in an urban environment. Lutter’s approach to photographing the urban space is like a stereotypical city, with its tall buildings, cars and street lamps. Luxembourg photographs the city but not with the stereotype approach like Lutter, he uses puddles to create reflections of buildings and city surroundings.

Vera Lutter ‘333 North Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL’, 2001

The Museum of Contemporary Photography commissioned Lutter in 2001 to turn rooms in Chicago office buildings into camera obscures and photograph Chicago’s downtown. Chicago’s buildings have long been photographed – this vertical city on the prairie, with its blocks of abstract grids, has held great attractions for the camera – and Lutter’s pictures, with their sweeping verticals and repeated rectangles, play up these aspects. The Chicago photographs show the presence of old and new buildings, compressed into a grid of overlapping planes.

Vera Lutter uses the most basic means of photography to render the world she depicts – and photography itself – unfamiliar and new. The tool is the camera obscura, the optical principle of which holds when light passes through a small aperture into a darkened chamber and an inverted image will appear on the wall opposite the hole. Lutter hangs black-and-white photographic paper on the wall to capture the image. The resulting pictures are one-of-a-kind paper negatives.  As such, the tones on the paper are reversed – the daytime sky appears black, dark buildings appear white – and the image itself is inverted and upside-down. 
Positive becomes negative, objects in motion disappear, and the scale of the print is much larger than the usual photograph. In these images, we are made to realize that the techniques of photography are in no way hinged to its assumed visual conventions, and this realization should carry over to our viewing of the other pictures all around us.
Because of the small aperture necessary to keep the image in focus, her exposures are essentially long, from an hour or two to several days or even weeks.

Vera Lutter, San Marco, Venice, XX: December 3, 2005


The photograph of the San Marco, Venice, XIX: December 1, 2005 by photographer Vera Lutter reinterprets an iconic city. Lutter used the same optical device that once aided Venetian artist Canaletto: a camera obscura. The method allows her to take days-, weeks-, or months-long exposures, which she then develops and leaves as irreplaceable negatives.

Compared to Luxembourg and Wentworth, Lutter used a camera obscurer to create her images. By doing so her images don’t show as much detail as a normal photograph would. 

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