Concept and Intuition, Part 3: Urban Photographs

In Part 2, I discussed the role of concept when photographing the prairies.  In this post I’ll continue by discussing it in the context of my urban photographs.

I started photographing the city with the loose idea of producing a prairie trilogy: natural, rural and urban.  At the time I was obsessed with creating photographs that were abstract and minimal without resorting to extreme cropping.  There were some successes:  

Backside, Edmonton, 2006

Alley Shadow, Edmonton, 2006

There were also lots of photographs of walls with various things on them.  I found these less satisfying.  It seemed to me I was trying to impose a minimalist ideal on an environment that was frequently chaotic.    

With the Prairie Waters and Prairie Modern photographs I drew inspiration from abstract painting.  I likened the natural photographs to abstract expressionism and the rural ones to color field painting.  I began to think cubism might be an appropriate reference for urban environments.  I made a few tentative efforts to produce cubist photographs, but the results were disappointing.    

Eventually, I gave up my preconceptions and just started photographing what appealed to me.  I photographed sporadically.  Looking at photographs from that period, there are many inspired by a minimalist aesthetic.  But there were others embracing more complexity.  I seemed to be developing a new grammar for photographing the city.

Mall Entrance, Edmonton, 2007

Eventually, I gained confidence in this new grammar and began photographing more frequently.  There was only concept in a broad sense.  I was trying to make honest photographs of Edmonton while staying true to the way I see.   

When I moved to Vancouver, I carried on in much the same way.  I was invigorated by having a new city to explore.  From the beginning the Vancouver photographs seem more complex and sophisticated.  

Convention Centre, Vancouver, 2012

Growth, Vancouver, 2013

Without doing so consciously, I was now making photographs that realized the cubist ideal I imagined many years before!

My approach to the urban photographs has been pretty consistent.  I pick a direction (if I’m walking out the door) or a neighbourhood (if I’m driving) and see what I find.  I try to vary the locations.  Sometimes I re-visit and other times I seek out something new.  I avoid back-to-back visits to the same place.

I have no specific agenda, but themes emerge.

For example, in Edmonton there are what I think of the ‘blank spaces’.  These are certainly informed by the minimalist aesthetic, but they are also seem true to the character of the city.   

Industrial Facade, Edmonton, 2012

There are also photographs of things protruding from the landscape. 

Protruding, Edmonton, 2008

There are photographs of malls.

Southgate Mall, Edmonton, 2007

None of these themes make an appearance in the Vancouver photographs.  Surfaces in Vancouver are covered in growth.  There are malls in Vancouver, but they are not as integral to the character of the city.  In downtown Vancouver, nothing breaks the horizon because you rarely see the horizon - it’s obscured by towers or mountains.  

The Vancouver photographs have their own themes emerging.  The city is trying to transform itself into an idealized and often exclusionary version of itself.  There is a strong demarcation between the west side and east side of Vancouver.  There are contrasts and contradictions to explore.

Chaotic, Vancouver, 2013

Behind, Vancouver, 2014

Between 4852 and 4864, Vancouver, 2013

I’m trying to nurture these themes while leaving room for others to emerge.  I’ve become more attentive to the politics of development.  I’ve read a little history on different neighbourhoods.  I’m doing research and formulating concepts to feed back into intuition.      

This series of posts on concept and intuition was motivated by the Vancouver photographs.  I'm looking back to learn from those experiences.  I hope to better understand what’s emerging and explore how I can re-enforce it conceptually without clobbering the flow.  

Other posts in this series:
Part 1: Prairie Waters
Part 2: Prairie Modern