Surveying the city
The cities of Los Angeles and New York provide the material of two separate exhibitions at the Photographers' Gallery.
While both cities have defined the American dream, they produce a strikingly different profile of urban American life.
Garry Winogrand's New York (above left) is intimate and inclusive, crowded and energetic - buzzing in the new-found political consciousness which emerged from the streets in the late 60s and early 70s. Winogrand (1928-84), a New Yorker himself, became one of the central photographers of his generation with his obsessive recording of the streets of Manhattan in grainy, black and white close-ups of individuals caught unaware.
'The Man in the Crowd' brings together a sample from 35 years of archetypal street photography. His portrait of the city is through its citizens; the sum of trivial and extraordinary events continually unfolding in front of his camera.
By contrast Karin Apollonia Muller's Los Angeles, photographed some 30 years later, could not be more alienating. Her large colour prints show America on the eve of the millennium as disengaged, apathetic, and happy to let the forces of global economics show the way. She sees LA as an outsider, keeping a safe distance between herself and her subject as she carefully composes her frames from high above the streets. From her protected position she observes rather than participates. Edges and peripheries offer near-deserted scenes where the pre-existent landscape meets the precise geometry of the city. In Overview, LA, a rough desert ridge strikes across the bottom of the frame while a seemingly infinite city grid disappears into the sky at the horizon.
Her photographs are of a city in constant flux, growing, consuming and expelling. Orange County catches earthmoving works for a new suburban development just at the moment of transformation when another piece of the desert landscape is lost to Los Angeles. Positive images of building and growth are suffocated by the sinister archaeological quality of neatly levelled piles of earth defining individual houses.
Soft earthy tones reappear throughout the exhibition, creating a kind of visual equivalence across extreme and disparate situations. Landfill shows another buff coloured landscape scarred by ant-like bulldozers working at burying the city's waste. The scene is brutish but is undeniably from the same organism as the careful domesticity of Orange County.
LA's relentless quest to conquer the hostile Californian desert shows no sign of slowing. Muller presents the process as virtually depopulated, leaving it to the mega highways to dominate the landscape. She keeps the people of LA safely contained within their cars, as if this was the only acceptable place to conduct one's public life. Rare faceless figures appear alone; the homeless, the immigrants minuscule in the background. Hitchcock (above right) shows the famous director looking down on multiple lanes of stationary motorists waiting patiently for the city's traffic system for instruction. Only those people elevated to iconic status are visible.
'Angels in Fall' brings together a wide range of portraits of LA, all reinforcing Muller's own displacement. These photographs are painterly, pale and low in contrast, beautifully composed and printed with dispassionate precision. They recall romantic nineteenth-century arcadian city views. The merging tones of horizon and sky, city and landscape create a hazy ethereal place. Like the people barely visible in the vast panoramas, Muller remains an outsider yet it is exactly her alienation that enables her to capture the sublime scale and pace of LAand the mundane rituals that sustain its mythical status.
Tom Emerson teaches and practices architecture in London