Imaginer Urbanus

imagine (imǽd3in) pres. part. imagining past. and past part. imagined  to use the imagination viably || to picture in the imagination || to conceive of || to form delusory ideas about, invent (something without any basis of truth) (F. imaginer).

urban (ə:rbən) adj. of, relating to, belonging to or characteristic of a city or town or of people living in a city or town (opp. RURAL) (fr. L. urbanus, of the city).

Bernard S. Cayne, ed. (1990).  The New Lexicon Webster's Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language.  New York:  Lexicon Publications, p. 483, p. 1082.

"The photographic impulse, as I experienced it in my days as a Nikon-toting daddy, wore two aspects, the creative and the commemorative.  The first sought to catch, in the plump snap of the shutter, something vivid and even beautiful in its color and contour; the second aim, more realistic though in a sense grander, was to halt the flow of time.  The camera, that highly evolved mechanism, put into Everyman's un-trained hands the chance to become, if half by accident, a death-defying artist."  John Updike (2007).  "Visual Trophies."  The New Yorker, December 24/31, 144-148, quote from p. 148.

South Bend, Washington, May 2005 (Elvin Wyly)
"A little halo of photographic illumination ... accompanies us in our traversal of the decades, and any aesthetic or sociological values that the photographs possess are incidental. With a poignancy peculiar to photographic images, the past is captured while its obliteration is strongly implied." John Updike (2007).  "Visual Trophies."  The New Yorker, December 24/31, 144-148, quote from p. 144.
A curious intersection of time, space, and place, the amateur snapshot is at risk.  Thanks to the acceleration of technological innovation and the exponential rise in the number of images produced by insightful and creative individuals around the globe, the collective human attention span long ago reached its limit.  John Updike reflects on the rapid disappearance of the old film cameras and paper prints:  "We didn't in fact, often discard silver-based snapshots, but kept them, with their negatives, in boxes and drawers to await a definitive culling that never came.  They began to slide into obsolescence before the turn of this century, and had already become 'collectibles,' with a fellowship of collectors and dealers feeding on the shoals of these sliverfish as they raggedly rose from the depths of the private realm to surface in the marketplace." (Updike, 2007, p. 144)  Glossy and matte silverfish gave way to binary codes embedded into physical objects that become obsolete nearly as quickly as the rate of growth in electronic storage media:  JPGs and TIFFs and GIFs and RAWs stored on 5.25" floppies, 3.5" floppies, tape cartridges, hard drives, CD+R, CD-R, CD-RW, DVD, USB drives, compact flash cards, and on and on.  Bits begat bytes begat kilobytes, then megabytes, gigabytes, terabytes, petabytes, exabytes ...  The etymology itself is threatening.  The greek roots for measures of storage start out mildly -- kilo for thousand -- but then grow angry with multiplication.  Mega, giga, and tera mean "large giant monster."  [2].  The Large Giant Monster known as Wal-Mart handles an average of more than one million customer transactions per hour, adding incrementally to a database estimated at more than 2.5 petybytes (one thousand monster-bytes -- terabytes -- a number of bytes equivalent to 2 to the 50th power); Facebook has approximately 50 billion photographs (Cukier, 2010).

We are buried alive.  To the degree that "space" has come to be understood as electronic storage space, time-space convergence may well have arrived in 2009, with the exploding popularity of Twitter.  More than a social-networking device to destroy the human attention span, Twitter offered the tantalizing prospect of taking the real-time 'pulse' of its ever-growing population of users.  Snapshots inevitably became part of the enterprise.  While Twitter did not allow users to upload photographs directly, several enterprising alternative sites quickly emerged to provide links between photographs and Twitter feeds:  TwitPic, TweetPhoto, Twitgoo, and so on.  Another site, Pingwire, scans these alternative sites and presents a visual banner of snapshots accompanying real-time Twitter feeds.  The individual images are unpredictable, and they arrive in a stream of hypnotic rhythm.  The cumulative effects of the image stream can be confusing, amusing, and/or addictive.

These images are also fundamentally and inherently ephemeral.  Even the places where you can find them are in perpetual disequilibrium:  as soon as you remember where to look, *poof* they're gone.  There's no link to Pingwire in the paragraph above, for example, because not long after I wrote those words, the link went dead.  Corporate takeover, legal liability dispute ... who knows?  The pace of innovation in digital capitalism has become breathtaking, and most days it feels like we're approaching some kind of endgame in the commodification of the human attention span.  When Twitter recently changed the terms of use for developers working with its real-time data stream, one analyst asked, "Twitter, what kind of bird are you becoming?  Are you still that cute little bird that everyone loved, or are you becoming a scary bird of prey?"  (quoted in Perlroth and Bilton, 2012).  Another analyst attacked Twitter's apparent financial motives for the move, and declared,

"The future market cap of the company will ultimately be orders of magnitude greater if they are stewards of the open nervous system of the planet than if they are the next Myspace trying to sell ads on their own pages and apps."  (quoted in Perlroth and Bilton, 2012).

In an age when snapshots have become automated real-time feeds in a global "open nervous system," what meaning can they convey if offered slowly, individually, for careful and considered consumption?  What, exactly, is the rate of inflation at which the snapshot economy becomes the equivalent of Weimar Germany?  At the peak of hyperinflation in 1923, a wheelbarrow of cash couldn't buy a newspaper, and it took a trillion German marks to buy a U.S. Dollar.  What's the digital equivalent today, with millions of photographs uploaded to social media sites every hour?

The words above were written in bits and pieces, in those scattered fragments of the day where one has the energy to write a few sentences, but not the energy or discipline to Do The Really Serious Writing.  I first started scribbling thoughts here around 2005 or 2006, I think; the words are updated now and then, whenever I have time or focus to think about these things without the guilt of all the other deadlines whooshing by while I'm not checking email or struggling to catch up on reading.

Now I read something that bowls me over, because it really connects in a visceral way with fragments of the perspective that seemst to have shaped my thoughts on photography -- especially in an essay I wrote a few years back, "Things Pictures Don't Tell Us."  Follow that rabbit-hole hyperlink and read the piece if you want to, and if you have time.  But maybe my thoughts are too obsolete in this fast-changing mediascape.  In that case, consider these words, and read Rosenfeld's (2012) powerful essay questioning the new relations between digital proliferation and the sense of self produced through images over a lifetime.

"For a while, I kept up with the sorting, naming, uploading ... It was some time in 2009 that I fell behind, then so far behind that I nearly stopped taking pictures ... since the very thought of new images ... became synonymous in my mind with hard labor.  Indeed, for my past efforts, I now had a hard drive filled with hundreds if not thousands of photo files that I lacked the energy to go through.  Never mind to look at again.  On my bimonthly to-do lists, along with 'Clean out basement' and 'Write thank-you note to Mom's best friend for educational toys received a year ago, Christmas,' I now found myself adding, 'Deal with photo nightmare.'"

Rosenfeld wonders if the ease and instant gratification of taking photographs -- in quantities that overwhelm our capacity to organize or experience them in human-scale ways -- is fundamentally destroying the role played by personal images in the development of personal memories.  "...with every digital image we casually take and delete from our iPhones or Androids," she fears, perhaps "we're stripping photography of its awesome powers to keep the past in our sights."  (Rosenfeld, 2012).  We are also stripping photography of its awesome power to document, to shock, to provoke, to really reach people.  As one illustration of the Weimar inflation metaphor noted above, consider the work of the activist news organization Ryot, which recently released an immersive, 360-film that will soon be available for experience through Virtual Reality headsets.  The film, "Welcome to Aleppo," is meant to demonstrate how virtual reality technologies can be used to "teleport viewers to real-life conflict zones and disaster areas" such as Nepal or Syria (Lang, 2015, p. H3).  Christian Stephen, the London-based global editor for Ryot, explains the hopes for the new approach:  "It can also be used to genuinely communicate stories around the world in desperate need of reaching people.  The fatigue that has come with photos and videos of explosions and people crying has numbed people to the reality of the world, especially in Syria."  (quoted in Lang, 2015, p. H3). 

Mr. Stephen is right -- and isn't that frightening?  What would Susan Sontag say?  And once everyone's hooked up to the latest Oculus Rift Virtual Reality headsets, how long before we become numbed by those enhanced virtual experiences?  What happens when all the latest technological innovations are fully, completely democratized?  Not long ago, I went to Los Angeles and headed to Griffith Observatory, which provides a wonderful overview of the city; as I took in the vista of the vast metropolis, I heard a buzz coming closer.  I looked up, to see yet another drone hovering ahead.  Welcome to the planetary empire of the visual: a travel writer for the New York Times, Stephanie Rosenbloom (2015), goes on vacation to see the remains of Roman amphitheaters and finds she has to tug tightly on the hem of her dress when she encounters, at close range, the latest must-have gadget:  the "Selfie Drone."


And so "taking photographs" has become just that:  stealing particular moments of time, in particular places, for the purposes of acquisition, possession, or collection.  By lubricating the ease and speed of the process, our embrace of technological advance has made it too easy to abandon the profound possibilities of meaning.  It doesn't have to be this way.  At its best, the snapshot encourages a careful, patient, and creative form of communication.  It inspires the kind of communication that is individual and deeply personalized, and yet collective, democratic, and unmistakably populist:  we all know that there are talented and sophisticated photographers, but the snapshot is easy for anyone.  The amateur's snapshot often captures something distinctive and valuable, something not available from the professional's portfolio.  In many cases, unique value arises from accidents of skill or knowledge (or lack thereof); in other cases the accident is born of time, space, and place, such that something worthwhile decides to take place, to make itself manifest, in front of the amateur.  Luck, and a desire to keep watching for those moments of manifestation, creates remarkable possibilities.  It helps, too, if one has love of place, love of time:  the etymology of the French amateur is not that far off from the Old French amorous.


But if the amateur's snapshot performs an accidental epistemology, it can nurture an ethos of generosity as well.  Three aspects of this spirit are most significant. 

First, it thrives on non-profit motivations:  the amateur is "one who cultivates an activity as a pastime rather than as a means of making money (cf. PROFESSIONAL)" (Cayne, 1990, p. 28).  In an age of incessant commodification of nearly every domain of human activity and interaction (and indeed of human and non-human encounters), the amateur's snapshot offers a precious refuge from capital, price, payment, and profit.  Celebrating refuge, however, should not be mistaken for arrogance or ideology:  the talents and principles of professional photographers who make a living with their craft are neither diminished nor compromised by the modest pay.  Yet most professionals in most professions nurture a personal pursuit, carefully protecting it from the incessant creative destruction of the market.  In turn, the un-priced, un-sold refuge from capitalist life returns the favor by helping to protect its creator's soul, spirit, and creativity.  We all need some refuge from the market. 

Second, the amateur snapshot distills the Kantian infinities of time and space to small, manageable treasures that can begin conversations, raise questions, unsettle assumptions, reflect or refract the assumptions and perceptions of the viewer.  To be sure, the professional image presented in the newspaper or on the wire service has a similar capacity; but the infinite distillation is much more powerful for the amateur snapshot, because, deep down, we all understand the radical democracy of contemporary photography:  events and non-events in many places can so easily be manifest to amateurs.  Sometimes just one, other times entire crowds of amateur photographers see something and reach for whatever they have -- a point-and-shoot, a cellphone, a digital SLR, or for the old-school photorati, a 35-mm film SLR (Honey don't take my Kodachrome away.)  Today, we all know this.  The visceral knowledge of the sheer number of amateurs, raised to the power of the number of potential events and mundane non-events deemed worthy of a snapshot, and you have something approximating an equation for a first law of photographic imagination.  And when the amateur viewer knows that a particular snapshot was produced by an amateur photographer, the linkage draws a direct, sharp line through the infinite universe of images, meanings, and interpretations.

But a third consideration offers a remarkable, surprising shift.  Although the proliferation and explosion of picture-taking is bittersweet and problematic in many ways, it has also begun to crack the foundations of all those anti-foundationalist critiques that have drawn inspiration for more than a century from Walter Benjamin's arcades.  The lineage of critique from Benjamin to Sontag, Tuan, Rorty, Debord, Foucault, and Mitchell remains valuable and influential among scholars, public and organic intellectuals, and anyone else with the time to savor these literatures.  But theoretical critique of visual culture and the gaze of the flaneur or panopticon surveillance never completely went mainstream (with the possible and very limited exception Debord and the situationists around 1968).  Today the critique is accidental and incidental, but broad, sweeping, and deeply felt through the culture of many societies across the world. Almost overnight, the cultural-technological tsunami of Moore's Law combined with Web 2.0 have begun to reconstruct the social meanings of photography.  Flickr, Facebook, Google image searches, and innumerable blogs overflowing with words and images have trumped critical social theory:  anyone drinking from the firehose of today's web-wide world knows that we're not in Kansas anymore:  we know that pictures are not unproblematic, simple visual depictions of objective truth.  We know that every event, every place, can present contradictory and unexpected realities in photographs taken from different angles, at different moments, by different photographers.  We don't even fantasize about the old Enlightenment empiricism of observation, positivism, and Cartesian correspondence.  We know that photographs don't simply "tell the truth," but instead capture multiple perspectives, contingent and partial half-truths.  We are all post-poststructuralists now.  We know this with a single glance at the latest National Enquirer in the checkout stand at the grocery store. 

But many of us also understand that this is the beginning of the conversation, and not the end.  The shattered fragments of Enlightenment metaphysical realism are depressing and destabilizing if we're searching for The Answer, for One Right Way to See something.  If we're open to the use of the amateur snapshot as a way of starting a conversation, however, we find new possibilities.  We can negotiate, explore, debate, and reconsider.  We can use the iconography of the photographic imagination as a means of reflecting upon our own presuppositions, stereotypes, and partial, situated understandings of parts of time and space.  The enterprise certainly involves risks:  "...photographs can dislocate viewers from original contexts.  Presented are worlds in fragmentation, photographic images being detached; set adrift not only geographically but temporally as well" (Jakle, 2004, p. 239).  Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time and place, and so have all the rest of us (As I remember it, "Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time" is the opening line of Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five.)  Still, recognition of risk should not descend into analytical and creative paralysis.  The careful, patient, and cautious use of the amateur snapshot as a means of communication allows us to give in important ways:  to give our voice to the collective visual culture; to give our good fortune of circumstance to the archives -- to use our eyes, sensibilities, and good luck to preserve a fragement of time and place that will soon be destroyed.  And in the capitalist city, this creative destruction is rapid indeed:  As my friend Dan Hammel puts it:  "The dynamism is fascinating, but also troubling.  It means that many wonderful landscapes with millions of useful, 'worthy' entities (representing essential parts of the daily activity spheres of millions of urbanites) will vanish.  Boy that was an awful sentence." (Hammel, 2008).

No, Dan, the sentence is just fine.  It's the process that's awful.  Shock and Awe, indeed.

The Place is the Professional

If you've read this far, then I wonder:  why are you here?  Welcome, whomever and why-ever you're reading my silly thoughts.  The vast majority of stuff out on the web remains ignored and invisible, so I'm very fortunate to have your attention and your patience:  thank you.  If you're perusing the web in search of what Updike calls "visual trophies" with an eye toward using them in any kind of non-profit and/or non-commercial activity, then you certainly have my permission to use anything that might be of use (see my thoughts and limited grant-of-rights statement here).  If your purposes are commercial, or if you would like to use an image in a product that will itself be copyrighted, I'm usually happy to give permission for such uses, at no charge (or just for a few copies of whatever product you're creating); get in touch with me to work out the wording of a grant-of-rights document. 

If you're a student in search of ways of synthesizing your passions for the snapshot with the formalized apparatus of academic scholarship, then here are a few recommendations.  Choose a photograph, do some homework on it, then read about the practice of photography.  Here are a few suggestions for books you might find useful.  First, consider almost any of the books authored or coauthored by Camillo José Vergara; the one in easy reach on my shelf as I type these words is Unexpected Chicagoland, but Vergara has produced many, many others.  Vergara and Samuelson provide concise advice:  "Our mission is a reverse search for El Dorado:  in places that once were seen as the promised land, we search for the debris of history.  Walter Benjamin's analysis of the Paris Arcades, The Arcades Project, has been a source of inspiration for us.  Like him, we seek 'the world of industrial objects as fossils, as the trace of living history that can be read from the surfaces of the surviving objects,' 'the stuff of childhood memories,' 'residues of a dream world,' 'the objects that have begun to be extinct,' 'things that are freed from the drudgery of being useful.'" (Vergara and Samuelson, 2001, p. xxi).  Vergara has also excavated the typologies and classifications hidden in plain sight on the streets of different nodes of America's evolving urban system -- for example, a nice series of street images of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Here's how Vergara (2008, p. A21) introduces the series, "The Man on the Street":

"In America's poorest ghettos, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s portrait is one of the most popular subjects of public art.  These images, which I have been documenting since 1977, regularly appear on the walls of the liquor stores, auto-repair shops, fast-food restaurants, mom-and-pop stores and public housing projects of Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York and many other cities across the country.  The majority are the work of amateur artists. ... He is ... often accompanied by his famous phrase, 'I have a dream' -- a reminder that in many communities where these murals exist, the gulf between hope and reality remains far too wide."

I also second Vergara and Samuelson's recommendation of Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing.  I also recommend Leo Ou-fan Lee's brilliant and personal account, City Between Worlds:  My Hong Kong:  "What makes this city so 'special'?  A rational answer is hard to come by, for Hong Kong thrives on confusion and contradiction.  Its dynamism is expressed in a variety of ways and manifested above all by a collective energy and self-imagery that does not fit preconceived categories..." (Lee, 2008, p. 1).

I also highly recommend John A. Jakle's concise and readable essay on "The Camera and Geographical Inquiry," which provides a valuable review of the craft and a series of pragmatic suggestions on how to weave visuality into geographical scholarship.  Jakle (2004, p. 239) notes that "too few geographers work diligently to raise the quality of their photography to high skill levels thus to better appreciate the power of photography as a means of communication.  Indeed, many geographers never develop any competency with cameras at all and, unfortunately, stand proud of it."  I plead guilty:  I have no talent or skill, no training, and far too little discipline or patience to correct these deficiencies.  I make no claims whatsoever for the quality of any of the images on this page; if you find anything insightful or useful, therefore, give credit not to the photographer, but to the particular intersection of time and place that chose to manifest in front of my lens, my eye.  I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time with a camera.  I'm the amateur.  The place is the professional.

And other professionals of place include Nicholas Dahmann and Geoff DeVerteuil.  Savor a peek into Nicholas' geographical imagination on a walking tour of downtown Los Angeles in March of 2008 here, and think carefully about his critical cartographic intervention, "Political Theory and the City."  You may also be interested in his 2010 documentation of the Esperanza Community Housing Corporation's "From Our Eyes" event:  "Extraordinary Ordinary:  LA CAN and the Aestheticization of Politics."  And see Geoff's magisterial minds-eye masterpieces of Sao Paulo, Dubai, Los Angeles, Berlin, and many other cities, here.


Updike, John (2007).  "Visual Trophies."  The New Yorker, December 24/31, 144-148.

Cayne, Bernard S., ed. (1990).  The New Lexicon Webster's Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language.  New York:  Lexicon Publications.

Cukier, Kenneth (2010).  "Data, Data, Everywhere."  Special report on managing information.  The Economist, February 27, sixteen pages following p. 48.

Hammel, Daniel J. (2008).  Message 'Re: Cass Hotel.'  E-mail sent to Elvin Wyly, January 13.

Jakle, John A. (2004).  "The Camera and Geographical Inquiry."  In Stanley D. Brunn, Susan L. Cutter, and J.W. Harrington, eds., Geography and Technology.  Dordrecht, Netherlands:  Kluwer Academic Publishers, 221-242, quote from p. 239.

Lang, Derrik J. (2015).  "A 360-Degree View Inside War."  Associated Press, via The Vancouver Sun, August 15, p. H3.

Lee, Leo Ou-fan (2008).  City Between Worlds:  My Hong Kong.  Cambridge, MA:  Belknap Press of Harvard University.

Perlroth, Nicole, and Nick Bilton (2012).  "Twitter Changes Lead to Online Protests."  New York Times, Bits section, August 17.

Rosenfeld, Lucinda (2012).  "Many More Images, Much Less Meaning." New York Times, December 1.

Rosenbloom, Stephanie (2015).  "The Selfie Drone:  Invasion of the Vacation-Snatchers."  New York Times, September 6.

Vergara, Camillo José (2008).  "The Man on the Street."  New York Times, Photo-Op/Op-Ed, January 21, p. A21.

Vergara, Camillo José, and Timothy J. Samuelson (2001).  Unexpected Chicagoland.  New York:  The New Press. 

     Imaginer Urbanus

Florence, Italy
Granada, Spain
Panama City, Panama
Brooklyn, NY, July 2012
Vancouver, August 2012
Beijing, February 2010
Verde Valley, Arizona, July 2012
Albuquerque, New Mexico, July 2012
Monte Vista, Colorado, July 2012
Remembrance Day ceremony, Menin Gate, Ieper, Belgium; November, 2009
Brussels, Belgium, November, 2009, and another view here.
November, 2009
November, 2009
And the real-estate porn announcing what will replace it.  The Cabrini-Green area is now being called SoNO.

Would we forget to imagine, experience, or believe -- if not for the kind reminders of the global capitalist consumption-industrial complex?  Vivo City, Singapore, January 2010 (Elvin Wyly).
Nowhere store, 28 Wyndham Street, Central, Hong Kong, February 2010 (Elvin Wyly).  The "Nowhere" store, it seems, "has been much anticipated" and "widely covered in media all over the world."  (Freshness magazine, September 29, 2009,  The original Nowhere was launched in Harajuku, Tokyo, in 1993.  Images of pre-opening construction signs on the site imply a playful alternation between "NOW HERE" and "NO WHERE."
"Hart has not been swayed by the modern era of digitized maps and images.  Since 1972, his U.S. and Canada lectures have been illustrated with his own slides:  85 to 100 per lecture; four to five thousand images in total, all taken by him.  'Slides are like toothbrushes,' he says.  'You don't want to use someone else's.'"  John Fraser Hart, quoted in Tim Brady (2010).  "A Life in Full."  The Minnesota Geographer, Spring 2010, p. 1., p.13, quote from p. 1.
Packard plant, Detroit, Michigan, July 2010 (Elvin Wyly)
Packard plant, Detroit, Michigan, July 2010 (Elvin Wyly)
CopyLeft 2017 Elvin K. Wyly
Except where otherwise noted, this site is
licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada License.
I am the amateur.
The place is the professional.
above: Am I the only one troubled by the prospect of using Face ID to "pre-tag" photos before feeding them into the global-social-networking monster of the Corporate Social Web?  Many years ago, my student Mitchell Gray analyzed the social consequences of the proliferation of surveillance networks and facial-recognition algorithms:  "Will we recognize the facial-recognition society?" he asked?  We're getting new answers to that question every day...
9:02 AM, Wednesday, April 19, 1995, Oklahoma City.
[Photograph of memorial taken June 21, 2014]
Princeton, BC, June 2015
You Had Me at My Lid
The saga of the lonely bottle in search of its lid, Vancouver, Downtown Eastside.  Images ©Copyright Jatinder Dhillon, February 2016.
Below:  Mission 16th Street, San Francisco, April 2016
From Wall Street to Y'all Street
Beaufort, South Carolina
From the Archives:  Kirovsk, Russia, June 29, 1992
U.S. Capitol, East Side, April 8, 1962 (photograph by Robert S. Wyly)
Flat-tire Edsel, Laramie, Wyoming, August, 2016
“My lands are where my dead lie buried.” Crazy Horse

“My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes also.”  Chief Henry Standing Bear

“When the legends die, the dreams end. When the dreams end, there is no more greatness.”  Korczak Ziolkowski

El Castillo de San Cristóbal, San Juan, Puerto Rico
The Power of Valparaiso!
Ermita de Saint Joan, Monserrat, Barcelona
The hermitage was built sometime prior to the period of Abbot Pedro do Burgos (1512-1536).  King Philip III visited in July 1599.  The hermitage was destroyed in the Peninsula Wars, reconstructed in 1858, damaged by the construction of an adjacent tourist restaurant in the early twentieth century, and then finally partially restored as an historic site.
Alhambra, Granada, Spain, February 2017
Bogota, Colombia, September 2016