Reflections on ‘Making’ and ‘Taking’ Photos in Visual Urban Research

A new issue of Candide: the Journal for Architectural Knowledge, invites reflection on the use of visual methods in urban research, and the dialogue between researcher and contributing interlocutors in such practices. It brings together a selection of essays combining text and image in various ways, by urban researchers and practitioners from a number of disciplines. It is reviewed here by Nathaniel Télémaque, visual arts practitioner, doctoral candidate at UCL (Geography), and PGTA on Urban Lab’s Histories of Global London module Spring 2021 (MA Architectural and Historic Urban Environments).

CANDIDE: Journal for Architectural Knowledge, no 12, January 2021. Editors Axel Sowa and (guest editor) Ela Kaçel. Berlin: Hatje Kantz Verlag. ISBN 978–3–7757–4853–7. PB €20

“Photographs And Other Visual References Neatly Tapped To A Small Studio Wall…” 23/03/2021, 35mm film photograph (Credit: Nathaniel Télémaque).

Reading, writing and typing away in my small visual arts studio in north-west London, as I watch the sunlight cast longer and longer shadows throughout the day, I found that this monograph challenged me to think about what visual urbanism might entail for me and the various visual urban practitioners I collaborate with. In bringing together a collection of textual and visual essays as a repository of ‘architectural knowledge’, the publication successfully encourages its readers to consider the nature and use of visual knowledge in urban research.

The issue seamlessly complies and syntheses an engaging series of photographs and archival images made and recovered by urban researchers (from different disciplines) and photographers who participated in RWTH Aachen’s third Candide Conference “Photography As Visual Urbanism: Memories, Research, Mediation”. The publication is physically akin to a meticulously designed photo-book, and examines disparate approaches to the medium of photography, as well as how photography is applied to and utilised in various urban fields and sites. Its objectives are to facilitate dialogue between the urban and the visual, questioning how the medium of photography is used in the analytical and planning practices of urbanism, and deconstructing planning practices, artistic interventions and traditional photographic practices. The editorial by conference organisers Ela Kaçel and Axel Sowa frames these lines of enquiry, followed by twelve essays guided by wide urban geographic and visual practice-led foci, as their materials and contributors engage with contrasting cities, such as Berlin, Doha, and Brasilia, across continents.

The first essay by anthropologist Alexa Fäber explores the formation of photobooks in city planning environments and urban restructuring. Supplemented by photographs of photobooks themselves, her essay explores the intricacies of placemaking and photographic collaborations. Urban and architectural historian Mary N Woods’ contribution represents an innovative textual and visual treatise on the city of Bombay/Mumbai and its historical engagements with the photographic medium. Photographer Lard Buurman’s photographic contribution features a foreword which positions his digital documentary practice as a capturing of everyday places, located in African cities such as Lagos, Nigeria and Luanda, Angola.

Davide Deriu’s essay offers up retrospective reflections on the Italian photographer Gabriele Basilico’s works. Aptly entitled portraits of places, his essay explores practical and aesthetic tenets of photographic practice. Nicholas Boyarsky’s essay is distinctive as it focuses on the ubiquitous features of the photographic postcard, traced via the life of Walker Evans, an American photographer who collected thousands of postcards between the 1900s and 1920. Clare Melhuish’s visual essay combines fieldwork images taken during research in Doha with insightful textual annotations, surveying the city at different levels of scale. From bustling traffic-filled streets, to photographs capturing erected CGI billboards, the images capture insights into the social impacts of urban transformation. Birgit Schillak-Hammers’ essay focuses its framing on different representations of Berlin in the 1920s. Drawing on original photo-books and archival images such as photomontages and lithograph prints, she engages with aspects of the city’s memories, urban planning and utopian visions. Ela Kaçel’s contribution looks at ‘self-images’ made by migrants and photographers in German cities. Reflecting on the practices of different artists such as Candida Höfer and Lee Friedlander, she examines site-specific renderings of photographic self-localisations.

Photographer Markus Lanz takes the reader on quotidian journeys in the city of Brasilia. Underscored by urbanistic interests related to urban planning and research, his photographs are accompanied by a meticulous style of research-driven textual annotation. Bettina Lockemann’s essay delineates different photographic practices from architectural to street photography, through which she utilises her own photo-books to facilitate dialogues around practical photographic themes, such as horizontal and vertical framing and sequencing. Elisabeth Neudörfl’s contribution is based upon her documentary practice in photography, which has produced published photo-books as well as exhibitions. The essay sees her break down the components of three of her photo-books: Super Pussy Bangkok, Central: E.D.S.A and Deconstruction Gladbeck which are accompanied by an image series of photographic book extracts. Roman Bezjak’s closing photo-essay presents the reader with a series of architectural photographs which explore the allure of national modernist buildings and monuments between locations like Pyongyang, North Korea and Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Spanning 204 pages in total, Candide 12 is compiled in a manner that avoids valuing texts over visual images or vice versa, the visual materials demanding attentive readings as much as the textual content. The publication’s disparate selection and curation of engaging essays is unified by the essays’ shared concerns with urban environments, experiences of cities and the photographic medium. As a researcher, writer and visual artist I found the monograph to be highly thought provoking as it synthesises photographic epistemologies such as making portraits of places, with research endeavours that are orientated to insights into the conditions of urban life in differing locales. Furthermore its visual content is representative of different photographic traditions, such as street, documentary and architectural photography. Widely framed photographs of city landscapes are intricately positioned amidst more ordinary visual renderings, of photo-books, quotidian street scenes, archival records and image caption lists which are akin to film photography index cards.

Each essay whether it is written or photographed demands the reader’s attention to both text and image, successfully exploring what visual urbanism may have been in the past and how it may be characterised today by recovering archival images in tandem with textual and photographic content. For example Woods’, Boyarsky’s, Schillak-Hammers’ and Kaçel’s contributions advance exemplary depictions of visual urbanism in the past, via their examination of archival images which mediate former representations of Indian, German and American cities in relation to their current status. Whereas contributors like Markus Lanz, Bettina Lockemann and Elisabeth Neudörfl’s engage specifically with contemporary representations of visual urbanism, directly through their own photographic, visual urban research and photo-book orientated works, which are combined with textual analyses and reflections. Despite these essays maintaining their own distinctive temporal framings and appearing to be kaleidoscopic in nature, when read together they effectively delineate a field of what might be constituted as visual urbanism.

While Candide 12 advances a range of valuable arguments concerning the relationship between photography and urban planning, the monograph does however tend to overlook the motivations for the documentation which it presents, and this is an area which I believe could benefit from further exploration. Questions or dialogues framing how contributing practitioners are situated in the photographs they make, and the practices of researching and collecting visual materials which they engage with are not raised. The absence of this context can create a dissonance in understanding how and why the different contributors came to photograph, research and write about their interdisciplinary urban and visual subject matters, placing limits on the conception of visual urbanism as a finalised framing of photographs, visual images and propositions which ignores the processes which brought them into being.

I suggest that discussions of visual urbanism necessitate a move beyond finalised framings alone, to explore the reasons why we pick up cameras, pens and papers to engage with the urban, as well as how we situate ourselves in the works we create. Within my own experiences and practice-related research, identifying as a visual artist involves a substantive emphasis on the site-specific nature of my work on the White City Estate in London, and depends on relations of trust I’ve built with my peers who live there. Prior to picking up any urban research tools, I took the time to familiarise myself with the site, as well as its residents beyond the capacity of photographic subjects. My photographic activities are predicated on the notion of making my photographs with people and places rather than taking photographs of them, allowing me to reflexively open up my photographic practices through site-specific dialogues with my peers, engaging with them as contributing interlocutors, rather than static photographic subjects. This approach represents a contrast to the documentary traditions represented in this issue of Candide, which may create a distance between photographers and subjects (be they people or places), and is one I suggest might warrant further exploration.

Nathaniel Télémaque is a North West London born & raised visual artist, writer & PhD researcher who photographs and writes about ‘everyday things’ in various urban settings. His Project ‘Everyday Things: Visualising Black Millennial Experiences On The White City Estate (Geography Practice-Related PhD)’ visualises the experiences of a kinship group of Black millennials living on the White City Estate in Shepherds Bush, West London. The project combines two main methodologies. The first is an archival focused work, aimed at recovering the estate’s former imperial and colonial site, the Great White City Exhibition (1908), as well as more recent histories of the estate. The second is a form of co-produced photographic research undertaken with Black millennials (aged 23 to 32) currently living on the White City estate.

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