“The City– Becoming and Decaying” is an exhibition of photographs curated by the Goethe Institute, currently showing at Aratoi.

In the introduction to his book ‘Century’ featuring 100 years of photography (1900 – 2000), the editor Bruce Bernard says:

I have deliberately avoided many, although by no means all, of the famous historical ‘icons’, or those that have been used to show any nation’s indomitable spirit. Overuse has made them irritatingly unreal (or perhaps it was their very unreality that has led to their becoming overused), and I believe they can deaden people’s responses, making them feel complacent or superior, and discouraging them from seeking or seeing real feeling in the less familiar, more thought-provoking images.

Later in the passage he says:

I have also avoided pictures in which people seem to have been used only as puppets and to have no individuality as human beings.

‘The City – Becoming and Decaying’ would have been very different had the late Bruce Bernard been selecting the images. The exhibition tries to be a photographic essay about one of the most complex human inventions of the contemporary era and succeeds only in confirming rather romantic negative stereotypes that often veer too close to cliché.

 Pripyat, Former restaurant in Hotel Pripyat Ukraine.  By Andrej Krementschouk. 2009. (Recording the Chernobyl disaster)

Pripyat, Former restaurant in Hotel Pripyat Ukraine. By Andrej Krementschouk. 2009. (Recording the Chernobyl disaster)

Because the exhibition failed to engage me, I felt provoked to wonder about how art photography does produce ‘more thought-provoking images’.

Like all other art forms, photography has succeeded in expanding its boundaries. Early in its history, it was preoccupied with its ability to provide evidence or present truth. Later it emphasized preoccupations like composition and non-documentary abstract values that derived from painting.

Photographers have also experimented amongst other things with super-realism, blurred vision and fantasy. That images can be digitized and manipulated gives the medium as much scope as any other medium to challenge, perplex and entertain its audience.

The Canadian photographer Jeff Wall, for example, takes hundreds of separate images of a staged scene and then combines them digitally and presents them as though they were documentary.

Jeff Wall, View from an Apartment. Transparency and Lightbox 167 x 244cm, 2005.

Jeff Wall, View from an Apartment. Transparency and Lightbox 167 x 244cm, 2005.

Walls photo above is as informative about the city as any in the Goethe Institute’s exhibition. It locates the figures as part of a messy household with the messy city in the background. It also raises questions about relationship between the two figures, which allows the viewer to engage imaginatively with the image as a necessary part of process of interpreting the scene it depicts.

But the most interesting provocation it makes is its use of the medium to depict a complete fiction. The photo is a composite of hundreds sewn together with digital technology in an apartment chosen because of the view it provided, of figures who probably had no relation to each other apart from the days or weeks it must have taken to construct the image.

Jeff Wall - Dead Troops Talk, 229 x 417 cm, 1992

Jeff Wall – Dead Troops Talk, 229 x 417 cm, 1992

Dead Troops Talk uses the composite more playfully in that the soldiers can be seen to be actively interacting even though obviously direly wounded. Even with this totally surreal scene the use of a documentary medium provides an edge of tension which enlivens the viewers interaction with the photograph.

The problem for me with ‘The City– Becoming and Decaying’ is that it seems stuck between photo documentary about the complexities of the city, and the presentation of images which are simply a pleasure to look at without any claim to significant informative value.

Cities are large collections of people. One important way we can understand a place or the circumstances of living is through looking at pictures of people. The people in this exhibition are almost invariably posed in such a way that they have become the photographer’s compositional tool rather than a record of lived experience. As Bruce Bernard says, they have become puppets.

Afghan Girl by Steve McCurry, 1984

Afghan Girl by Steve McCurry, 1984

By comparison, this well-known image, ‘Afghan Girl’,1984, by Magnum photographer Steve McCurry, even though carefully composed shows just how much a simple portrait can stimulate our imagination and engagement about the circumstances of the subject. Humans tend to be able to read more into images of other people than into derelict structures or abandoned landscapes.

With so many photographs on display, I would have been particularly grumpy not to have enjoyed many of them. There were certainly some that were interesting because of the curiosity of the subject matter. The piles of tyres in the Lagos bus station was a good example, as also was the image of the mass of kids playing football in a wrecked urban clearing. Both of these allowed me to engage with the image because they posed questions. It is in the process of trying to answer those questions that the audience becomes informed.

The exhibition by no means fulfilled the stated aim of exploring the realities of living in urban environments now. The reason people continue to flock into cities is because they abound with creative and social potential. They are places of joy, celebration and productivity. That they also harbor some loneliness and decay is a side issue, albeit an important one.