22 April 2009

The Wire aesthetic


I've been thinking a bit about photography lately, investigating various moments in its history, particularly in the context of India. But in surfing life I often check the In Pictures section of the BBC--or similar sections of any news organization--to see what they've got up, what kinds of images they choose, this sort of thing. So today, I went over to the BBC for the first time in a while and discovered a set of images titled Urban Decay. About Baltimore.

What struck me about the photographs was the aesthetic of the "failed city" to riff on the "failed state" phrase. I teach the picturesque: a valuing of the ruin, of the once great and now fallen, of the vegetation taking over human-constructed monuments, buildings, homes. Usually these images, in the context of India especially, are dotted with small "natives" that add scale and a sense that there are people here, just not anyone that really cares about the city.

I'm not sure this is some sort of failed city picturesque, but it does strike me that images of Baltimore, a city without a really recognizable skyline, without an obvious "landmark" (and don't say: the first Washington Monument, because no one outside of B'more knows about that), that a city without that but with other iconic images from television may remain in this mode of ruined city aesthetics for a while, perhaps forever. Even the photograph of the bannister in Mount Vernon, a downtown neighborhood that's a mix of grit and high-end, even that celebrates the agedness, the moment in the past when curved iron railings decorated the homes of the railway barons and shipping magnates in haute B'more.

It strikes me as similar to that Indian picturesque: the construction of urban decay and its relation to B'more will remain with the city for a long time. As will the reality of urban decay. This kind of picturesque doesn't tell me anything new about poverty, cities, or B'more. It repeats. But if people continue to come to B'more (as they do) looking for "the Wire tour" of the bad neighborhoods, then we continue to reenact an understanding of the city that constitutes it as a place of devastating, immovable poverty. I think that doesn't do justice to Simon's love of the city, and I think that doesn't help cities like B'more figure out ways of becoming un-broken.

1 comment:

Daniel said...

Abandoned/decaying things are eminently photographable, perhaps in part because they stand as the failure/perversion of private property and the 'merican dream of owning a part of the public world and making it private. So to photograph it is to take some ownership of it, since it is left there, in a way, up for grabs. It is also, perhaps, a modern aesthetic that art can make beautiful things that are ugly and awful, since non-art (commercial, political?) seems to always want to promote the shiny-happy. Anyway, recently came across this blog post by someone who created a panoramic photo-montage of a street in Detroit after reading that 60 out of the 66 houses on it were abandoned. I also recently found this guy's site, much of which I really love, who has a section in his portfolio called "Deserting" that has a similar interest in urban/industrial decay.