“The city was seen as dangerous, but also obscure, crowded with secrets and containing districts that were inaccessible to respectable folk. It was to such areas that the inspectors of city life and labour had to journey in order to illuminate them” – Derrick Price, Surveyors and Surveyed, in L.Wells (ed.) (2000) Photography: A Critical Introduction.
Photography, in the nineteenth century was seen as a kind of social investigation, an “unmediated transcription of reality” (Price, 75). Susan Sontag in her essay, On Photography, sees photography as the most surreal of art forms, ” in the very creation of a duplicate world, of a reality of the second degree, narrower but more dramatic than the one perceived by natural vision” (52)
The Surrealist movement saw the essence of revolution as the ability to capture” the marvelous in everyday” and photography was seen as a conduit for doing so, but not without contention. Photography grew in the days of the Empire and according to Price, became an “important adjunct to imperialism, for it returned to the Western spectator images of native peoples which frequently confirmed prevailing views of them as primitive, bizarre, barbaric or simple picturesque.” (68)
The tendency of imperialist photography to construct “the Other” for the purposes of study and perhaps, control, “privileged the purchaser” and allowed the dominant culture to be defined against those being colonized. The consumer of photographs thus constituted a distinct social class, with a growing appetite for images of people in living conditions that were different from their own (Price, 70).
This became even more pronounced with the depiction of poverty, squalor and urban decay that obsessed the middle class spectator. Alan Trachtenberg, the American historian, writes, “exploration of forbidden and menacing spaces emerged in the 1890s as a leading mode of the dailies, making spectacles of the “neither side of New York” or “the other half.” The reporter appeared now often as a performer, one who had ventured into alien streets and habitations, perhaps in disguise, and returned with a tale, a personal story of the dark underside of the city.” (126)
Sontag further argues, “For more than a century, photographers have been hovering about the oppressed, in attendance at scenes of violence – with spectacularly good conscience. Social misery has inspired the comfortably-off with the urge to take pictures, the gentlest of predations, in order to document a hidden reality, that is, hidden from them.” (55)
According to Sontag, the camera became the extension of the eye, for the middle class flaneur.
Photographs are still used to represent “other” realities. Realities that were considered out of reach or exotic to the consumer. This commercialization of voyerism is used extensively by the tourism industry in order to “sell” places to potential visitors. The mechanics of how a photograph is taken is rarely evaluated, despite the awareness that they are taken to elicit a certain response.
Fortunately, today there is a proliferation of excellent social media sites that offer a wide range of perspectives on any city. Dubai has recently launched an e-museum on Instagram made up of photos taken by its residents. This fantastic current exhibit running at the International Center for Photography in New York documents the changed political and social landscapes of South American cities. A post about urban photography wouldn’t be complete without paying homage to the father of the medium, Henri Cartier Bresson. Also, check out the Telegraph’s showcase of award winning street photography under its culture picture galleries.