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Thursday, 4 April 2013

Cities and Photography by Jane Tormey

Pinky Masoe at her home in Sherwood Heights, Smit Street. The building's water and electricity had been cut off for four months

Thulisile, eighth floor, San Jose, Olivia Street, Berea.

Eviction aftermath, Noverna Court, Paul Nel Street, Hillbrow

pictures by Guy Tillim

The most noticeable thing about driving in to Paris are the Banlieus, the outer suburbs that lie beyond the ring road, the area that used to be a defensive empty zone, but is now a kind of poverty-ridden riposte to bourgeois, patrician Paris that we all know and love so well - all kept at arm's length by 8 lanes of the Periphique. This is the space that Eugene Atget photographed his chiffoniers.

It is also part of the subject of Jane Tormey's illuminating book, Cities and Photography. Tormey looks at the development ofHausmann's  Paris, how the creation of its boulevards and shopping passages became a psychological refuge for the bourgeoisie. Then she connects and extends these planning perspectives to wider theories and urban developments.

So in the chapter on Cities and Urbanism, we get different conceptions of urban spaces. For example, Lefebvre's ideas of Perceived Space, Conceived Space and Lived Space - all of which connects so strongly to contemporary photography of urban spaces.

There are chapters on photography in and of the city and how photographs frame and reflect a particular discourse - (much of the time) photography is an echo chamber that shows us what we want to see in a way that we want to see it, because we are used to seeing it that way and that is the way that you show cities because that is the way that you show cities.

Which is a frighteningly recognisable way of describing a lot of photography. And the good photography is the work that shows us something in a way that we are not used to seeing it (or in a way that we don't want to see it). But that engenders a certain resistance in most of us. Which is why we continually get pictures that we recognise over and over again. And so everything looks the same.

The great thing about the book is that it connects theory in to images but also to a more globalised view of the city. Tormey writes about the voyeur (the observer) and the flaneur (the walker - this is what your classic street photographer fancies himself to be. But we all know street photography's dead so...)* and the power relationships and myth-making that are involved in these particular stances.

Tormey also goes beyond the myth-making to see how political action is used to represent the urban environment in South America, Asia and Africa. So we see how urban environments in Johannesburg reflect the theoretical ideas of earlier chapters, how control of public spaces carried through the post-apartheid era and found a place in developments such as the Hillbrow housing complex, once high-end apartments for white residents, now a completely different category..

The pictures above are from Guy Tillim's Jo'burg series and kind of exemplify the dilemmas of urban representation of the poor. How do you show a victim of forces beyond their control, without showing them to be a victim, and when they might also be a contributing factor to the forces beyond their control. How do you show people adapting to space that is being redefined in the face of political, economic and possibly social decay.

I'm not sure Tormey answers the question above, mainly because it is a question that can't be answered, but she provides the tools to address the question by connecting theory to photography and looking at the urban experience with a global perspective.

*I don't mean that but it's such fun to say, I said it anyway. Street Photography's not dead. It's changing.

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