Horizontals, verticals, and some disciplined curves, squares and angles offset by relentless electrical streetlights. The wall with forty vintage photographs marking the start of The Rush and Calm, Moments in the City looks like an architect’s drawing table. Karl Hugo Schmölz’s 1950s documentation of German cinemas, orchestra houses, car dealerships, and shopping malls clearly illustrates the strong focus on hardware during the post-war Reconstruction period. They show the city as landscape, the sum of town planning, math, and concrete, a formal space devoid of human life.
Turn the corner and you’ll find yourself in an explosion of bodies and faces. Gone is the tranquility. Streets and buildings have receded into the background, their status reduced to that of stage. Hardware is overruled by the soft infrastructure of human habitation—and all the action that goes with it. The street photographers making up a sizeable part of the anonymous private collection lying at the base of this exhibition, caught it in all its shades of glory and defeat.
Karl Hugo Schmölz (1917-1986), modehuis Wormland, Keulen, 1957 © Wim Cox, Cologne
Of course, Ed van der Elsken’s mods and beehives are present, as are Daido Moriyama’s smudgy depictions of Tokyo nightlife. But the majority of the forty photographers presented are American and that shouldn’t come as a surprise. In the US no cities had to be rebuilt from rubble and after World War II the country moved straight into an era of unprecedented conspicuous consumption, with the city as its most outspoken arena. Here Mitch Epstein photographed four girls sitting on a lawn holding an unbelievably large snake; in bars and dance clubs George S. Zimbel caught the first glimpses of youth subculture; and in the park Ron Galella, who soon dubbed himself “paparazzo extraordinaire,” surprised Jackie Kennedy while watching a tennis game, subsequently chasing her to her chauffeur-driven car.
Except as a place for the new, the weird, and the wonderful, the city also came into its own as the ultimate locus of loneliness. Dana Lixenberg’s portraits of homeless men in a New York shelter—a parade of dead eyes and burned hopes—are chilling in their directness. The men in Saul Leitner’s images are often better off, sitting in a restaurant or moving along in a cab, but they are always depicted behind glass. Here also, communication has become impossible. The positive flipside of the city’s isolation and anonymity is the room left to indulge in individual passions. Would Joan Colom have tried to photograph women’s behinds in any place less metropolitan than Barcelona, he would have been lynched.
A lot of the names in The Rush and Calm, Moments in the City have popped up in Dutch museum shows over the past decade. Lee Friedlander’s The New Car, the fabulous series of car portraits which revolutionized commercial photography by introducing a snapshot-like quality, was on show at FOAM as recently as last year. The Amsterdam museum often features street photography and has also shown Moriyama, Epstein, Colom, Walker Evans, and Helen Levitt, mostly in solo exhibitions. The great surplus value of this presentation, however, is that it shows all these greats together and as part of an era characterized by an unprecedented urban vitality. Even more so, it makes clear how this group cemented photography’s status as the ultimate medium for documenting this new, fast, and chaotic form of social organization.
Michael Wolf, Tokyo Compression, 2010; Courtesy of the artist and Fotomuseum Den Haag
At the end of the show, where the most recent work hangs, the curator could have chosen to make a conceptual U-turn, back to Schmölz’s architectural approach. The empty interiors of Candida Höfer or Andreas Gursky would have rounded off the story nicely. And with Frank van der Salm’s aerial photograph of a rooftop pool it seems to end up that way. But in the last hall the perspective shifts in a different direction. Larry Sultan portrays porn stars in Californian villas, Katharina Bosse burlesque dancers on pavements, and Pierre Faure a doll-like woman standing in the middle of a busy Tokyo intersection. Man seems to have merged with his surroundings; the city has been internalized and “the person in the city” has evolved into “the city person.” This new dynamic, emblematic of the 21st century in which more people live in cities than not, becomes clearest in Marnix Goossens’ Silver Beach. It shows trees, bushes, and grass in all chlorophyllic shades. In the middle sits a parked Opel painted in the most hideous green, sticking out like a sore thumb. Urban life makes itself known without the usual hustle and bustle, light or concrete. The city has become an idea.
[Image on top: Karl Hugo Schmölz (1917-1986), Rheinpreussen, Gasstation Oskar Jägerstrasse, 1952; © Wim Cox, Cologne]