Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photograph is a long exposure of a film. The light that illuminates his subject, the Radio City Music Hall, was, perhaps, the representation of a fiction film. Following Sugimoto’s lead, it is my intention in this piece not to write about his image, but rather to use it as a catalyst, a light if you will, to illuminate a relationship between photography, cinema, and the experience of urban modernity during the early 20th century. This expansion will involve the discussion of three topics: the panorama photograph of the early 20th Century and its seductive power in presenting ‘real’ New York, the function of the movie palace in the modern urban experience, and finally a concluding discussion of the contemporary subjects use of digital technology to filter the often chaotic urban experience.
The early 20th century photographs of New York were intended to seduce the viewer. Projects such as The New York Panorama sought to educate the viewer about the city, to provide knowledge and thus stability in conceiving New York. As observed by Susan Sontag in On Photography, the epic prose of Walt Whitman influenced the early efforts to photograph the city, be it on the street or aerially.[i] The photos, therefore, sought to capture an America of progress in industry and a budding potential in its citizens. The photographic form due to its indexical value, Sontag argues, validated this glorified construction. Although there is a conscious effort to arrange the image, ‘there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what’s in the picture’.[ii] It is photography’s ability to ‘furnish evidence’ that no doubt invigorated the imagination of immigrants and solidified New York as being the quintessential modern city.[iii]
If photography functioned as a tool, either consciously or unconsciously, to further establish the myth of New York, then cinema acted as an inoculation for the reality of urban life. In Ben Singer’s article “Modernity, Hyperstimulus, and Popular Sensationalism“, Singer recreates an urban experience of modernity that was antithetical to photographic depictions. Singer posits a new conception of modernity that impacted neurological functions. With New York as the focal point of this cultural phenomenon, Singer represents an experience of hyperstimulous and constant tension brought about by the barrage of stimuli. Both attracted and discontent by urban modernity’s overstimulus, the picture palaces provided a controlled, and thus pleasurable, environment in which audiences could willingly submit to cinematic fragmentation of reality brought on by editing. As Walter Benjamin argues, this functioned as a sort of conditioning for the unknown traumas of urban life.[iv]
“In the streets […], one is often struck by the momentary insight that someday all this will suddenly burst apart. The entertainment to which the general public throngs ought to produce the same effect.” [v]
Considering the influx of personal screens and the drastic alteration of the digital point-and-shot camera, the cinematic and the photographic have formed a more cohesive bond in documenting the world around us, especially the city. Quite often a digital device offers both. The hyperstimulus of early 20th Century theorists, as Singer observes, are similar in some respects to the postmodern conditions written about in the later part of the century.[vi] In hindsight, the hyperstimulus of modernity seems quaint. The concept of ‘image saturated culture’ has lost all profundity as we move further into the fibre optic forest of the Information Age. We are immersed in it and screens, regardless of their private or public designations, mediate our experience. The ‘general public’ Siegfried Kracauer refers to has itself ‘burst apart’ as consumer society provides the illusion of heterogeneity. Fueled by desire, we branch off in a multitude of directions hoping to arrive at some feeling, some sensation of self-satisfaction. Considering this hyperindividualism, Sugimoto’s photo functions somewhat as an archeological document of a communal space where city dwellers sought refuge for several ‘New York minutes’ from the unpredictable dynamism of the metropolis. Have mobile devices introduced a personalized form of distraction for the city dweller? Considering the ‘reconditioning of the individual’s sensory apparatus’, as theorized by Benjamin and Kracauer, are contemporary city dwellers attempting to quell urban anxiety by recoiling inward to social utility networks that assure an active archive of witnessed experience?[vii] Certainly this development and maintenance of personal virtual realities brings with its own anxieties, but for now it seems to provide a ground on which the individual can reside in the face of the every increasing speed of physical and virtual production that constitutes the urban experience.
[iii] Sontag, 5.
[iv] Ben Singer, “Modernity, Hyperstimulus, and the Rise of Popular Sensationalism,” in Leo Charney and Vanessa R. Schwartz, ed., Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life (Berkley: University of California Press, 1995), 94.
[vi] Singer, 73.
[vii] Singer, 92.
Written by Spencer W Stuart in his 4th year at Carleton University in 2011.