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.

Should we take joy in photos of a dying suburban shopping mall?

One photographer has been chronicling the last days of a mall in the Chicago suburbs:

It can be a tough thing to see a historic building being demolished, but what about when a suburban mall meets the wrecking ball? After a 63-year run, The Plaza shopping mall in suburban Evergreen Park has been demolished to make way for a newer, more modern outdoor mall. While there are many like it, The Plaza was notable for being one of the early indoor shopping malls in the Chicago area, and despite its staying power, the mall had become underutilized over the last several years. So called “dead malls” are nothing new, and if anything, they’re becoming more and more common. With the age of internet shopping and the massive reverse migration of residents leaving the suburbs for the city, many suburban malls have fallen into disrepair and have few, if any, major anchor stores left. One photographer, Martin Gonzalez, has been keeping up with the demolition of The Plaza and has been posting photos over the last several months. Here’s a quick look at some of his images of the fallen Plaza mall.

The pictures suggest ruin and decay, images Americans might more commonly associate with places like Detroit rather than the suburbs. But, the question that starts this article gets at this issue: should we take pleasure in seeing the suburban shopping mall – example of American consumerism, tacky architecture, and the social lives of teenagers with nowhere else to go – destroyed? That this mall failed could be used as evidence that critics of the suburbs were right: the whole system was not sustainable. Yet, there is fallout from this: how will the land get used? What happens to those jobs? Where is the local money that used to be spent here now going? Does the demise of the suburban shopping mall lead to more concentrated and authentic spaces (perhaps the New Urbanist dream) or increased fragmentation (big box stores and online shopping)?

See posts from the last year or so – here, here, and here – about the struggles of suburban shopping malls.

A “sociological record” of inside all of Poland’s homes

One woman aimed to photograph every Polish home and create a “sociological record”:

In 1978, there were 35 million people living in Poland, but that didn’t stop Zofia Rydet trying to photograph the homes of every single one. That summer, the 67-year-old began the monumental project she called her “sociological record,” travelling the length and breadth of her country on foot and by bus.

By the time she died, in 1997, the series, which is currently on show at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, comprised nearly 20,000 images from more than 100 villages and towns…

Over the years Rydet perfected a particular method for obtaining the best portrait possible. “I knock on the door, I say ‘hello’ and shake hands. I enter the home, look around carefully, and I immediately see something beautiful, something unusual, and I compliment it. The owner is pleased that I like it, and then I take the first photograph. Everyone has something in his house that is most precious to him. If I manage to notice this, then this person submits at once.”…

Rydet preferred photographing rural homes to those in the city, whose interiors she found sterile and uniform. She believed wholeheartedly in the socio-historical value of her endeavour, convinced that her pictures of personal objects and private spaces defined the people who owned them, and “revealed their psychology.”

Sociologists may often be associated with large-scale surveys but there are creative ways to obtain sociological data in everyday life, whether walking all the streets of a city or photographing thousands of homes. Of course, taking the photographs is not enough (even with the massive effort it would be to travel around and interact with all the residents): sociologists would want to look for patterns which might include things like decorations, spatial arrangements, markers of social class, the setting of the home, and so on. If this Warsaw museum put out all of her images – nearly 20,000 according to the article – it would be interesting to walk through them all several times to see what pops out.

Photographing affordable housing in New York City

With the expense of Manhattan and a booming luxury market in NYC, one sociologist shows what affordable housing looks like:

Garbage-strewn common areas, ominous graffiti, the twitching fluorescent stairwell lighting — these are the images most often associated with public housing. Even privately owned affordable housing is often seen as something bland and tiny you settle for, not aspire to. But David Schalliol, a photographer and sociology professor in Minnesota, sees a shift toward something that goes beyond the cliché…

In New York, however, he found that there was much more to the story. “Affordable housing means so many different things in New York City,” he said, citing developments, like Co-op City in the Bronx, that helped give the city a reputation for finding innovative ways to provide decent housing to middle- and working-class families.

Mr. Schalliol surveys this landscape in a new anthology, “Affordable Housing in New York: The People, Places and Policies That Transformed a City,” from Princeton University Press…

“One of the aims of this book, this project, is not only to demonstrate the wide variety of these developments, but also the common experience within them,” he said. “But it’s where people make their homes, where they meet their friends. They don’t just come home, they’re actively producing community.”

It would be interesting to see what sort of argument Schalliol makes in this book. The photos provided with the article suggest the people in New York City’s affordable housing are just trying to live a normal life. Yet, collections of photographs can counter stereotypes and help the broader public see what affordable housing really looks like. Perhaps the images could even help people see that having affordable housing nearby will not necessarily ruin their property values and lives.

I’ve discussed bad real estate photos before (here and here) but here is a full website devoted to the topic. Some of the pictures are indeed bad photos: poorly chosen emphasis, bad angle, catching the photographer in the picture. However, a number of have more to do with the home or the homeowner themselves; why do so many people have so much clutter when having these photos taken?? Of course, it could be argued that the agent/seller shouldn’t take such a picture in the first place but agents may have little control over what the owner has and having no photos of a house or major room (kitchen, primary bathroom, etc.) is not a good option.

The moral of the website? You want photographs that emphasize the better traits of the home without letting the bad photography skills or odd stuff the homeowner has get in the way.

And there are ways to prevent this from happening: make professional videos and photoshop furniture into the scenes.

Pizza Hut buildings with new uses

What happens to Pizza Hut buildings around the world once they are no longer home to the pizza chain?

Many of the vintage red roof buildings have been repurposed. Tran and Cahill, aren’t the first to notice or even document this change, but their photos nevertheless offer a fascinating glimpse at the weird ways these buildings are being used now.

They’ve found old huts reincarnated as Asian restaurants, dry cleaners, liquor stores, churches, and even funeral homes. Google Maps helped find locations, and online communities of hut fans have provided invaluable help since the started the project in 2013.

The pair, based in Sydney, has logged about 8,700 miles photographing almost 100 locations. They covered Australia and New Zealand before taking a great American “pizza hunt” road trip. They travelled through California, Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, just to name a few states. Wherever they went, Cahill and Tran made a point of getting to know the locals and getting the scoop on a building’s history. “In Chicago, we made a phone call to a business because we weren’t sure if it was a legitimate hut, and a very helpful store clerk gave us a full history of the building dating back to ’91,” Cahill says.

The fast food/restaurant experience is not just about the food but also includes the building and their architecture. Looking at the images from their book Pizza Hunt, it doesn’t take much imagine to them as functioning outlets of a global brand. I wonder if this previous architecture helps or hinders the new occupants. For example, does turning an old Pizza Hut building into a church (image 10/10) bring in more or less people? Does the Asian food (images 1/10 and 4/10) taste any different in such a building? I’m guessing the architecture and design may have little effect on later behavior and attitudes; perhaps this really says something about our approach in constructing functional, suburban buildings where one of the top priorities is that it can be easily adapted to numerous uses.

Quick roundup of notable Chicago by drone

Many have seen famous Chicago sights in person or via photography but here are links to some impressive videos of Chicago by drone. The best thing the drone adds to seeing Chicago? Changing the level of sight so as to not just be on the ground or above everything. Now, where is the ultra-impressive promotional video or commercial for Chicago utilizing this technology?

You don’t see many engagement photos set in suburban streets

One photographer looked to the suburbs for inspiration in an engagement photoshoot but didn’t find much to work with:

Engagement photos are either urban or rural. They are either a former factory or a leafy meadow, the brick wall of a forgotten factory or an empty beach. Never the subdivision. Never the cul-de-sac.

We wanted to capture the ambiance of the American subdivision.

The pictures are what you might expect: a couple standing in the middle of wide roads or cul-de-sacs amidst a bunch of cookie-cutter single-family homes. The locations are somewhat unfair; you don’t often see engagement pictures in the middle of urban or rural roads either. And, you can find lots of pleasant settings in the suburbs, perhaps even in gardens or flower beds in the very same tract homes in the backgrounds of these pictures. But, if you want to find the stereotypical image of suburbs, especially among critics, this looks correct.

The Chicago Tribune’s Instagram feed of their vintage photos

The Chicago Tribune has an Instagram account featuring vintage photos of the city. See highlights here.

One quick thought: the downtown looks remarkably different today including a very different kind of development along the East Branch of the Chicago River, the rise of gleaming skyscrapers in the Loop and elsewhere (the International Style), and a generally cleaner look (though perhaps the consistent black and white portrayal makes a big difference).

The world’s first nuclear reactor – buried in a Chicago suburb

A photographer describes going to the suburbs to find the world’s first nuclear reactor:

“I was working at Fermilab, and that research led me to this space. It’s in a forest preserve near Palos Heights, in an area called Red Gate Woods, and in those woods is Site A, where the first nuclear reactor ever created was buried in 1955. There’s also a site called Plot M, where all the waste from that experiment was buried while it was actually happening. Six stones designate where the waste is buried. The stones in the photo mark that area…

Note: According to information from the U.S. Department of Energy provided by Cook County, “the area surrounding Site A and Plot M continues to undergo annual monitoring and remains safe by all measurements.” The DOE did not respond to inquiries by presstime.

Read more about the site here. It’s interesting that this combines two key markers of post-World War II American life: the Atomic Age and suburban sprawl.