Thoughts on Photography and the City

Since its invention, photography has shown a special attention for cities. Its first exponents, those who started to experiment with the new possibilities of capturing images and developing the same, direct their attention to urban centres that were growing and reconfiguring themselves at a rapid rate with the onset of the 20th century. Such was the importance that this new medium took on during the eagerness to catalogue the development of the cities, that the French government initiate the first public project of photographically cataloguing structures of heritage and intangible value in Paris.

With the arrival of modernity, technological advances and the establishment of photography as a medium of expression, the urban landscape was inundating exhibition halls in galleries and museums. It attracted the attention of the large publishing houses and appeared in family photo albums of amateur photographers. All this constituted an extensive production flow which conformed a compendium of documentation and visual memory of such a magnitude that it was – and is- widely studied by architects, sociologists, urban planners and governments in order to re-design cities and create new localities.

In this manner of valuing the photographic urban image, we would not be able not to come across the work of the Italian Gabriele Basilica (Milan, 1944-2013), who became one of the photographers who knew how best to document and analyse the close relationships between photography, architecture and the city. Throughout his career he undertook projects that centred on cities and on the manner with which they were transforming. His first project titled ‘Milan: portrait of factories’ is a catalogue of images of Milan’s periphery which represents the urban landscape’s reconfiguration that during the years manifested unnoticed. Basilico travelled around different European and Middle East cities for decades revealing and studying processes of changes that were fruit of different social phenomena. Subsequently, in 1963 Basilico was invited to form part of the already renowned D.A.T.A.R. which was another exceptional project created by the French Territory Ministry. The project undertook the cataloguing of what evolution was being observed in France’s contemporary landscape.

This apparent but undeniable relation – concrete and objective- between photography and the city directed towards documentation, academia and its utilization as an urban planning tool, can be revised as well from a more worldly and human dimension according to the natural necessities that the individual forms in his or her life. That city landscape can be observed in order to interpret the distance that separates what is real from its representations, being presented as a metaphor of society; in terms of the acceptance of our recent history and our active responsibility as inhabitants of urban space.

Text published in Cosas Magazine (Lima).