Saturday, November 30, 2013

The City at Night (New York)

Becket, November 30, 2013

"I got up 9 o'clock one night and I says to myself "I'm gonna take a nice little ride and work up an appetite."" (Weegee, in "Famous Photographers Tell How", 1958)

Few people have a better sense of life in the city at night than crime reporters (yes, I know, I should say life... and death.) And in the New York of the 30s and 40s there was nobody better at that than Arthur Fellig, a self-taught photographer known as Weegee. He chased after the reports coming out of the police teletype, made the pictures and sold them to the newspapers in time for the morning edition. But he was much more than a crime photographer. He captured in his images the whole urban drama of a moment.

For one of his most famous pictures, aptly titled "Balcony seats at a murder", Weegee arrives on the night of November 16, 1939 to Prince Street in Lower Manhattan, where a man has just been shot in front of a coffee shop. He takes the picture of the murder scene, but the photograph shows much more than the dead body laying on the doorway. It includes the patrons of the coffee shop on the sidewalk, the people of the tenements on the windowsills above, the children on the fire stairs. Weegee is absolutely deliberate: "I stepped back all the way about a hundred feet..."

And he turned the city into a theater.

Friday, November 29, 2013

The City at Night (Vienna)

Becket, November 29, 2013

"Or do ghosts only rise by night, Doctor Winkel? Do you got an opinion on that?" (from a scene in "The Third Man", 1949)

In the earlier part of the 20th century, most if not all night views of the city were an expression of modernity, literally the bright side of modernity. But if the first war hadn't been enough, the second exposed the darker side of modern progress. In Carol Reed's celebrated 1949 movie "The Third Man", the city of Vienna is often portrayed at night, with the light coming from occasional windows or headlights, when not from sources that seem to have been placed by the lighting crew to actually emphasize the darkness of the city.

Several times, the plot of "The Third Man" brings the action to the Hoher Markt. It is the earliest and most important square in the historic core of Vienna, an elongated urban space easily recognizable by Fisher Von Erlach's "Wedding Fountain" (it depicts the marriage of Joseph and Mary.) One of the emblematic camera angles in the movie shows Hoher Markt at night from Judengasse, a small street coming transversally to the center of the square from the north. The light sources seem carefully located to focus not on the architecture or the space, but on the destruction and decay, the badly patched wooden shutters in the foreground, the pile of rubble in front of the fountain and the half collapsed buildings behind.

Yes, the illusions of the shining modern metropolis are a dream of the past.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The City at Night (Buenos Aires)

Becket, November 28, 2013

As far as I know, Horacio Coppola was the only Argentinean student at the Bauhaus. He was a pupil of the legendary photographer and teacher Walter Peterhans during the last years of the school, around 1932, when it was already in Berlin and under the direction of Mies van der Rohe.

When Coppola came back to Buenos Aires in 1936, the city was celebrating the 400th anniversary of its first foundation and offered the young photographer a perfect modern subject. In one of his best know photographs, he shows the city at night, with the "Calle Corrientes" as a gash of electric light cutting through the center of the image and culminating in the Obelisco, the monument at the intersection between Corrientes and 9 de Julio that had been finished only months earlier. In the foreground Coppola places the SAFICO Building, a 26-story modern skyscraper finished in 1934. Don't you think that Hugh Ferriss would have been blown away by the SAFICO? I'm no sure but I think that the photo must have been taken from the top of the COMEGA Building, another modern skyscraper finished in 1934 and located two blocks to the east.

In Coppola's photo, the widening of Corrientes street is almost complete, ready to turn into "Avenida Corrientes", one of the several thoroughfares opened at the time that introduced the speed of the car into the historic grid of Buenos Aires.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Urban Figures (Lisbon)

Becket, November 15, 2013

Known as the "Baixa", literally meaning "lower town", the center of Lisbon's historic core sits on a narrow valley running north-south. To the east, the old Arab neighborhood of Alfama climbs up the hills of Sao Jorge and Sao Vicente. To the west, the neighborhoods of Chiado and Barrio Alto rise on top of the hills of Chagas and Santa Catarina (yes, yes, Lisbon is another city of seven hills, like Rome, Constantinople and a few others.)

In response to these steep slopes, Lisbon developed a number of ingenious and rather extraordinary forms of transportation, including several funiculars and elevators. Among them, the Santa Justa Elevator cuts a particularly memorable silhouette in the skyline of the city. Designed by the Luso-French engineer Raoul Mesnier du Ponsard and completed in 1901, the lift is a freestanding iron tower sitting on a set of wide steps a the end of the Rua de Santa Justa in the Baixa. Its slender shaft rises up to the level of Chiado, where it is crowned by a two-story lookout pavilion cantilevering on all sides. From that point, there is a bridge-like structure that connects the tower to the ruins of the Carmo Convent and the Largo do Carmo further west.

Visiting Lisbon in the early 1950s the great French filmmaker Agnès Varda took a number of beautiful photographs, among them one that shows two of Lisbon's legendary "varinas" balancing their characteristic baskets on top of their heads. Standing behind, the Santa Justa elevator seems to replicate the figures of the fishwives at a much larger, monumental scale, almost as a guardian angel for the city and its inhabitants.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Urban Figures (Istanbul)

Providence, November 12, 2013

Often, travelers arriving to Istanbul have depicted a city of hills, domes and minarets. Instead, when the legendary French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson visited Istanbul in 1964, he chose to point his camera deep into the life of the street. Among his photographs there is one showing the Camondo Stairs in Galata. It looks like a scene in play, with a small cast of characters in their urban roles, walking along the street, smoking against a parapet, coming down the steps, stopping at a landing, looking back towards the residential neighborhood up the hill.

But don't you think that the main character in the photograph is the stair itself? After all, it's an extraordinarily expressive urban piece, with its baroque contortions and heavy Art-Nouveau architecture, clearly a figure (not a backdrop) wedged tightly in the narrow slot sloping between the façades of the adjacent buildings.

The stairs were built in the 1870s by the Camondo family, a prominent Jewish family of financiers often compared to the Rothschilds. This is the part of Istanbul known as Galata, originally the Genoese concessions of Constantinople on the northern shore of the Golden Horn. The Camondo Stairs connect Bankalar Caddesi--the banking street and financial heart of Istanbul--with the residential neighborhood up the hill, where families like the Camondos lived at the time. Actually, you can think of the Camondo Stairs as the daily routines in the life of the city turned into architecture.

(With thanks to my former student Başak Öymen, who introduced me to the history of the Camondo family.)