Art In Urban Landscapes, Photography by Deborah Julian
The beginnings of Urban Landscape Photography came not long after practical photography was invented. When Joseph Nicephore made the first photographic image, the term had not yet been coined. In 1827, Nicephore, instead, made a ‘heliograph,’ which had to wait patiently for Sir John Herschel to introduce the word ‘photography,’ more than a decade later.
By the end of the century, Eugene Atget was documenting radical changes in Paris as Napoleon III raced to make it commune-proof, broadening the alleys and backstreets. This would allow troops to attack blockades more readily and, a hundred years later, provide for tourists wishing to stroll the City of Light like boulevardiers of old.
A German siege that strangled Paris ended Napoleon III’s project before completion as the narrow twisting streets of Quartier Latin show. Much of what remained was preserved by Atget in his best known example of urban landscape photography.
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The men and women who pioneered impressionism in Paris saw the same things and responded differently.
While some painted pictures of the city, few used the less than extraordinary canals and banal urban crowds as subjects. Many just tramped away from a city they saw being destroyed by modernization and painted country scenes almost unchanged for centuries. The impressionists’ work makes captivating viewing and gives us some of the most transcendent pleasures any art gallery can offer, but history is not what they are about, unless it’s a romanticized history willing to sit still forever.
Atget Preserves History In Urban Landscapes
Setting an example that urban landscape photographers may always follow, Atget made over 10,000 images of Paris as the Nineteenth Century folded into the Twentieth. Interestingly, he sold them as ‘documents for artists,’ photographs to be used as models for paintings. He made a modest living at it, but at the same time, he virtually invented urban landscape photography.
Atget’s photographs serve now as historical references and inspirations for modern urban photographers. The grand buildings, small courtyards and narrow streets, the artisans plying their trades, the wealthy walking the boulevards, even the prostitutes, all show the way time and place can be documented. He was a bit inclined to nostalgia, but that taste worked to the benefit of the long term records. He captured forever people and places that no one else did.
Urban Landscapes In Photography Today
Photography is in many ways as much science as art, even for a chronicler of the times. Understanding the properties of light and how it affected chemistry on various surfaces was critical to early photographers who couldn’t possibly have imagined going around casually with an 8-megapixel iPhone camera tucked in a shirt pocket. The art of discovering the relevance of a scene or its uniqueness is, if anything, even more demanding now in a era flooded with images.
In a more congested world where the complexity of connections constantly shifts, photographers of all kinds look for that which is special and worth recording. Wedding and other special event photography are good examples. Urban landscape photography demands more. It demands discovering an angle or an event that isn’t likely to be seen again in the same way or even to repeat itself. Extending that into a creative art is the craft of only a very few urban landscape photographers, and this is where Deborah Julian comes in.
Urban Landscape Photography As Art
Deborah Julian’s work as an urban landscape photographer swings between capturing an exceptional moment and making it more beautiful or interesting. In one example, 42nd Street, she finds a woman walking at a muscular pace as she passes blue construction fencing, just west of Times Square. It’s a special tick in time, seconds apart from the crush of crowds, as this woman sings her way through the urban landscape.
Passing, shown above, is a sharply contrasted study in blue, emphasizing the breadth of people and structures an urban landscape contains.
In another photograph, taken on a pedestrian thoroughfare in Oslo, Norway, Julian freezes a rare, narrative moment. Three Couples have just hit the same mark. One pair, seen from behind, continues along the damp, chilly street, while a woman who has just passed them turns back for a second look. Still holding onto her partners arm, the woman begins to laugh for no reason we can see. The grace note for this picture is a third couple. Much younger than the live versions we see on the street, this couple is seen on a billboard, dressed in beachwear and happily running along he sands in a warmer, drier place.
These pictures show the art of an observer in Deborah Julian’s catching a scene, much as the impressionists struggled to capture single moments of light and color. But other examples of her work stand out as works of creative reinvention that are so beautiful and richly colored, viewers commonly mistake them for realist paintings.
A favorite example is 5 am, an image taken as a surreptitious, bird’s eye view of an urban landscape. The photographer has managed to capture the scene without being noticed herself. On the cusp between night and day, the lights from apartments are starting to come on. In one, the silhouette of a woman stretches as one of the first acts of the morning. Outside, the ghostly image of a ship floats upriver in a broadening urban landscape. The picture is saturated with warm tones of a summer dawning and, were it not identified as the work of an urban landscape photographer, you might take the scene to be imaginary. It isn’t.
Such is the way in which urban landscape photography can influence our views of the world, refreshing us by letting us see our cities through other, more practiced eyes.
Deborah Julian’s continues to add new images to her gallery, Urban Landscape Photography. Have a look and see some of the place to which the road from Eugene Atget has lead.
David Stone, Writer