Metropolis: 10 Traveled Cities

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

All the time I am asked the question “What do you like to shoot?” It is a lot harder to answer than you might think. Ultimately, I have to admit I just like to expose film. Whereas some people specialize in landscapes, architecture, animals, flowers or still life, mostly I photograph people. And the best place to find large concentrations is cities—big cities—metropolis.

Speculation has it that the first city appeared around 3200BC. The largest settlement
in southern Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq), if not the world, was Uruk.

By definition metropolis is big. It dwarfs the individual. In cities there is an inherent tension between citizen & his community. People are fugitives of the economy, captives of their environments, props in a larger picture. None are immune to the physical & cultural influences of the city. So do we consume the city or does it consume us?

Metropolis is both horizontal & vertical. Today’s metropolises do not just have lateral directions; their addresses are also up & down. Sprawling for acres, compressing all forms of enclosures tightly together & at the same time rising straight up, stacking other enclosures up to be engulfed by clouds. Who exists at street level is far different from what is subterranean or floating high above in the skyscrapers. You are subjected to less & less light the lower you go. The higher you go the more promise you encounter. Interiors have their own artificial sources.
Metropolis (1927) directed by Fritz Lang
Metropolis is concentration of production (industrialization & finance) & consumption (markets & population). Work is one inescapable imperative: you either have it or you don’t. In big cities you profit if you have it, but mysteriously you can subsist without it. Labor & commodity coagulate. And possession has a lot to do with how high or low you exist in the highrise/underground hierarchy. Besides commerce & population, metropolises all have highways & jazz. But it all merges on the street.

I grew up in the inner city. I like the throngs of humanity. Rubbing shoulders with anonymous characters. I travel, seeking more & I delight in taking pictures of them. Now I recognize skylines in movies, advertisements & magazines on sight.

However, photography cannot “know” a city, only those parts where we stand. Smells, sounds and pulses may resonate in our thoughts or dreams but are made whole with our pictures, sometimes years later. By choice, invitation or commission I am asked to make visual art in new places. With only limited research I must form a quick impression. Because it remains only my personal view of the city, it is merely a trace of the effect the city had on me. No matter how ugly or beautiful I find the place, it has at least two faces: daytime & night. All cities change when the sun goes down.

Horrific lower depths of London, Paris & New York that inspired the great social movements of the 19th & 20th centuries, & the crusading zeal of novelists Charles Dickens & Victor Hugo & photographer Jacob Riis against the festering tenements, sweatshops, & child labor that blighted these cities, now are among the First World’s proudest metropolises.
Those who believe that there are no alternatives to the present proliferation of
metropolitan tissue perhaps overlook too easily the historic outcome of such a
concentration of urban power: they forget that this has repeatedly marked the
last stage in the classic cycle of civilization, before its complete disruption &
-Lewis Mumford, The City in History
No one agrees on which cities are actually the largest. Where the edges & borders begin & end is a matter of conjecture. But most of the top 20 remain on everyone’s list.

In 1800, it is estimated that less than 3% of the world’s population called cities their home. A UN report recently revealed that for the first time in history more people live in cities than in rural areas.

Our relations with cities are like our relations with people. We love them, hate
them, or are indifferent towards them.
-Victor Burgin, Some Cities

Tokyo to some is the world's most populous city, some claim home to 36.7 million people. But today more than one-fifth of its population is over age 65, leading to increased strain on all sorts of systems: pensions, health-care and other facilities. After centuries of isolation, progress in Japan is a national mandate. Much of the population can adapt public policy quickly enough to change national direction seemingly at will. At the same time traditions, protocols & mores are diametrically different from Western, so much so that often Japanese correct is Western wrong, Eastern left is Western right.

Returning annually for years, I knew parts of Tokyo better than New York City. I could navigate its subway system faster than a taxi. Every tradition, comment and gesture had deep seeded meaning which thwarted my assimilation, but slowly understanding the culture probably taught me more about protocol than any class or system in my native land. I fell in love with Japan for its strangeness & for how much it nurtured my international education.

London, a commercial center since the Roman Empire, is now in the midst of another building project: preparing for the 2012 Summer Olympics and an estimated half-million visitors. London is one of the most sophisticated cities in the Western Hemisphere, but it harbors such an idiosyncratic subculture as to be humorous.

The recent riots have been such an anomaly for this decidedly first world model. Obviously there are deep seeded animosities amongst the “haves & have nots”.

My first visit to London was all fish & chips & Beefeaters palace guard. I was hitchhiking around Europe. Subsequent visits have revealed more of its quirkiness, but I have never been able to delve below the surface. I admire its diverse contributions to the world. The city works & thrives.

Moving amongst local citizens is easy but alien.

Paris is one of the world’s biggest tourist destinations. Celebrated for its art and architecture, its size, traffic & pollution problems threaten its image & lucrative tourism industry. The city fathers have consistently opted to position it as one of the leaders in art, design & innovation. They strive to make the city livable. The middle class considers itself politically involved even though the quality of life keeps them isolated from its underlying realities.

In my early visits to Paris I could only move amongst its demimonde. Race, economy & access were not nearly the obstacles as in other societies. At first I deluded myself into believing I could overcome the language barrier. That illusion was soon dispelled. But language has never prevented me from enjoying so much of what the city has to offer both in culture & people.

See my book Paris on BLURB and video on Vimeo

Mumbai (Bombay) is the most populous city in India & therefore one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of approximately 19 million. It is also the richest city in India & has the highest GDP in south, west or central Asia. It is the commercial & entertainment capital of India by hosting the stock exchange & the movie industry. At the same time the small wealthy & middle classes are dragging the other billion people into the twenty first century.

Mumbai has emerged as an economic leader after centuries of being subjugated by British rule & bone crushing population growth. Manpower & innovation have redirected the subcontinent. It is a country to be watched in the future with one of the most colorful histories & recent progressive policies.

This is a city divided vertically, horizontally, economically, historically, racially & spiritually. What you see in the highrises is very different from what you experience at ground level. “Underground” is even more alien. However, there are photographs on every level. Someone told me you could drop your camera & as it tumbled down the motordrive would randomly make art.

Everywhere is overwhelming. Millions of poor, middleclass & wealthy are right in your face & under your feet at every hour, day & night. Their resolve about their status or plight in life is conditioned by culture & religion & history. Therefore what we would perceive as burden is just accepted.

Saint Petersburg is the most European city in Russia. Built on the backs of serfs & slaves it has been a leader in & repository of cultural advances.

After a childhood distrusting the Russian society, Saint Petersburg was a tremendous surprise. The city embraced me (or rather just ignored me) in a way that allowed me to look, see, & perform my job in its most efficient way. I discovered that I could read Cyrillic, roam the streets & associate with the natives as easily as anywhere I have ever been.

The face of the city opened like a flower to the sun. It made good pictures just by force of existence. The center of the town is quite maintained. As you get closer to the edges it loses it polish very quickly, but that stands to reason for a metropolis trying to reinvent itself after centuries of subjugation by a myriad of governments.

See my book Saint Petersburg on BLURB & video on Vimeo

New York City is one of the most powerful metropolises on earth. A leader in both culture & commerce, the city has successfully figured out how to allow its millions of citizens to live on top of one another. Years of steady growth have made it a vibrant city. Its history is short when compared with others on the list, but that may be a blessing.

At the vanguard on many fronts, New York City takes that role seriously. Good & bad people from all over the world flock to take advantage of its potential. The best & worst end up here & give the town its flavor. The “city that never sleeps” consistently proves “if you can make it here you can make it anywhere” if you have an “empire state of mind”.

Over the years I have returned often to photograph different segments: Wall Street, Soho, Harlem, Jazz, sports, entertainment, politics, popular culture, etc. I have shot numerous jobs in the middle of Time Square and under the Brooklyn Bridge. While its problems seem so insurmountable it consistently rises from the ashes like the Phoenix.

Shanghai is a huge city that is changing so fast it may have lost its soul. China’s big cities steeped in thousands of years of tradition are busy destroying much of it in the name of progress. Shanghai is the economic powerhouse speeding to its future. One of the most distinctive skylines in the world, it has had more dramatic change in the last twenty years than in the previous 200. The youth & middle classes seem surprised when questioned about such rapid dismissal of ancient traditions & old elegance.

Wilting, humid heat made photography laborious. However the citizens were inviting, compliant & went out of their way to make it easy. I grew up being taught that the Chinese government has created a repressed society. You have to dig very deeply in this modern era to experience examples. It is there beneath the surface, but the image of today’s China is very different from a decade ago.

It is hard to contain that many people & social, interpersonal & political evolution is exciting to see.

Cairo is the capital of Egypt & the second largest city in the Muslim & Arab world & Africa. It suffers from high levels of pollution & traffic. Older than Cairo, the Nile is one of the most important rivers in the world. Its exploitation is the history of civilization. Nearby are the pyramids of Giza seen in every geography textbook & the ultimate adventurous tourist destination.

I had spent most of my life dreaming of visiting Egypt. Pharaohs, mummies and ankhs danced in my head for decades. When I finally got there, I plunged into the inner city with its souks, bazaars & markets with a vengeance. The sights, sounds, smells & noises were overwhelming. Throngs of merchants & shoppers pushed & pulled at every stall & storefront.

The City of the Dead was every bit as impressive as my anticipation.

Istanbul is the only metropolis in the world situated on two continents, Europe & Asia. Historically known as Byzantium & Constantinople, it is the largest city in Turkey. It has served as the capital of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Latin Empire & the Ottoman Empire.

Its moderate approach to government & social dynamics has made it a leader in international politics. It is officially a secular state. It also has served as a go-between in Western/Middle East negotiations. And although daily life is mired in ancient traditions, its population largely reflects its contemporary outlook.

I especially remember the amplified songs that were calls to prayer from the mosques & their ubiquitous minarets. In the middle of the night they set off sequentially & each Imam’s voice competed for my attention, barely audible in the distance. Istanbul has too many layers to be revealed in a short time, maybe even in a lifetime.

Los Angeles is the City of Lights—the land of fantasy. It is a city based on excess, built on the backs of an emerging subculture that does not even speak the same language. Money seems to thrive in constant sunshine.

A sprawling horizontal metropolis, Los Angeles represents the fast growing metropolis of the future. Promising quick fortunes, people immigrate from all over the world dreaming of fame, good weather, fast cars & luxury.

Many large cities have their unique characters but LA exhibits one of the most unusual. Its success also produces extreme diversity, crippling traffic, pollution, overcrowding, disparity & estrangement. Its different neighborhoods are almost impenetrable by outsiders. Separated by race, wealth, ethnicity, profession & politics, real LA remains opaque to tourists & long time residents.

LA grows from American seeds & on uniquely American soil. An original. The people who move here do so because it is what they hope & imagine it to be. I have photographed LA for the last quarter century & still have no idea where I am or what I am seeing.



Chris Rusnak March 14, 2012 at 1:43 PM  
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blog (blŏg, bläg) n. 1. short for Weblog 2. online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer 3. diary that is posted on the Internet 4. an experiment to verbalize my observations about the status of photography. It will be eclectic & deal with philosophy & practice of this universal art form. It will strive for periodic commentary about issues many photographers face, like ownership and the economy. It will also talk about pictures and what makes good ones and how to get them. No hardware. No software. No recycled clichés. No whining.