How much do we know about cities today because of photographs and visual images?

It didn’t take long for photography to become a tool for preserving major cities:

The idea of capturing something in photography before it disappears dates back almost to the dawn of the medium. In 1875, a group called the Society for Photographing Relics of Old London formed in response to the imminent demise of the 17th-century Oxford Arms. Like many coaching inns, the Arms was facing destruction as the city, coming out of the Industrial Revolution, was in a state of major redevelopment. Photographers documented the inn and other soot-stained alleyways, Gothic façades, and rambling wooden structures in glass plate negatives, printed in carbon to make them last…

Ramalingam added that the photographs demonstrate “what parts of London were considered worth preserving” to 1870s Londoners, and about half of these sites are still part of its built environment. A map on one wall plots their current or former location. A teetering house in an 1883 photograph is now replaced by the glassy Gherkin skyscraper, and Christopher Wren’s Temple Bar, pictured in 1878, was later taken apart and then reinstated not far from St. Paul’s Cathedral. More than just preserve a visual memory, the images represent the beginning of the photographic medium being a deliberate part of our historic record.

The photographs here are very interesting. Yet, I would love to see more on the larger question: did photography fundamentally transform how people and societies viewed their major cities? The visual age and the age of megacities are intertwined. Photography arrived around the same time as major change: industrialization and urbanization had arrived in many Western cities by the late 1800s. What if the transformation of London or the phoenix-like rise of Chicago or the changes in Paris weren’t accompanied by photographs? If we just had paintings or text descriptions, would we understand those changes differently? While photographs help us know what we are missing in current cities, they also remind us of how much has disappeared from all the major cities of the world over the centuries.

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