Back in the first part of the last century, when cameras were big and cumbersome, the city was photographed as a kind of landscape with tall buildings instead of mountains. Photographers named Steichen, Stieglitz and Berenice Abbott immortalized New York as the ultimate expression of modernism where skyscrapers symbolized the big dreams of a fearless new age. Decades later, the focus shifted closer to the ground as the great social landscape photographers -- artists such as Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Robert Frank -- captivated the art world with views of the streets as places where the most ironic human experiences were documented in the most impersonal possible settings.
Now, long after the heyday of high modernism, things seem to have come full circle as photographers once again look up to find inspiration in the vertical landscapes of the world's biggest cities, the soaring constructs of the human hive. But what is it that actually fascinates them? Today there are many vast megacities such as Shanghai, Sao Paulo and Hong Kong, where even ordinary apartment buildings soar higher than office towers in most other places. Stranger still, for those of us used to thinking of New York as the most vertical metropolis, many of the tall buildings in major Asian cities are as recent as they are numerous. Ed Burtynsky's Shanghai series is emblematic for its depiction of glass and concrete towers sprawling endlessly into the horizon, and you have to look hard to see any vestigial pockets of older and lower structures. A Canadian famous for large photographs of industrial landscapes, Burtynsky's flair for colorful panoramas also yields some dramatic views of Shanghai's Nanpu Bridge Interchange. Like its high-rise towers, which are familiar yet often topped with improbable domes, temples and rocket-like forms that give them an alien quality, the bridge is almost conventional, but not quite. Here, a graceful suspension span abuts an unexpectedly abrupt spiral more like the ramp of an oversized parking garage than the sprawling cloverleaf interchanges of America's highway system. A different take on the same Shanghai skyline by German photographer Peter Bialobrzeski gives us panoramic vistas of tall buildings bathed in the dramatic lighting that takes over as the sun goes down. The views become even more surreal, bordering on the fantastic --Êa vision of Shanghai as a scene from science fiction.
More abstract and somewhat more prosaic are Michael Wolf's photographs of the high-rise buildings of Hong Kong, the subjects of his Architecture of Density series. Unlike those dramatic panoramas of the new Shanghai skyline, his Hong Kong views are of the midsections of tall, not so new apartment buildings, so we mostly see vertical and rather hive-like rows of windows. Mostly large, over 5 feet on average, Wolf's photographs read like abstract minimalist paintings, at least until we zoom in on the individual windows themselves, each of which is subtly distinguished by the different curtains, potted plants or even the laundry hanging up to dry -- the only human touches seen on these otherwise utterly impersonal monoliths. Here the human presence becomes ironic by its near absence.
While no less monumental, veteran San Francisco photographer Doug Hall's Shinjuku Saturday Afternoon returns us to the human scale with a view of the crowded commercial district in Tokyo jammed with people under towering super-graphics and neon signs. Another panorama, this time of Sao Paulo, Brazil, reveals a high-rise megalopolis reminiscent of Shanghai, only clearly older and far less futuristic. The scale is less massive, if no less impersonal, in some other images of European cities, but it is Canadian photographer Michael Polidori's New York vistas that seem to take us full circle. While big, bold and dramatic, Polidori's Manhattan appears more settled and elegant than its upstart Asian or Latin rivals, at least in his View of Central Park and Trump Tower. But his Looking East, 42nd Street spins us back around to the most brazen frontier of Midtown, with tall, brassy office towers and supergraphics of passenger jets seemingly speeding into towering images of Daffy Duck or Beauty and the Beast, and it's monumentally tacky and outrageous --ÊBerenice Abbot must be turning over in her grave -- but it's still reassuring to know you're back in America again.
- This detail of one of Ed Burtynsky's panoramic cityscapes reveals an alien Shanghai, like a scene from a science fiction movie.