“Urban Explorer” to some are those people that can not free themselves from the comfort and amenities of the city life. To others are those adventurous people that explore the challenges and dangers of the cities. It will all depend upon your view and mostly to how deep this exploration will be.
“Bob Justiça” – Carlos Alexandre Pereira
One of the first person that I heard about going on an urban adventure was the “Ubernauta”. Eduardo Fenianos, the “Urbenauta”, graduated in Law and Social Communication, and later, writer of books that tells his urban adventures. The biggest of them was a trip through the streets of São Paulo, it were 120 days eating and sleeping in strangers houses that he meet along the way, returning home only in the end.
Despite thinking his experience very interesting, I find it too extreme to my taste. To me, from the perspective of a photographer interested in explore the city, there is no shame in returning home, or to the hotel, every night, even if only to sleep a couple hours and leave on the crack of dawn in the following day.
In the photo on the left, the Urbenauta (with the hat), with denizens from the “Favela do Buraco do Sapo”, a very poor community in São Paulo.
The urban or street photography, the style of the urban photographer, is not new, not even from the last century. In the beginning the photography was almost entirely of portrait style. Slowly, adventurous photographers went on travels to far away countries pointing their lenses to different and unknown landscapes. Other photographers, tired of portraying people, began to walk through their cities’ streets and ways, carrying on their large and heavy equipment to shoot the first urban scenes.
Those were the first urban explorer photographers. I can mention for example, Militão Augusto de Azevedo, one of the first Brazilian photographers from the second half of the 19th century to register São Paulo city’s social life and urban scene. But due mostly to the size and weight of that age’s photographic equipment, the urban photography were not very exploratory, but mostly documental. Is there a difference? I don´t know.
After the development of portable equipment, such as Leica I, became possible the true photographic urban exploration. Masters of photography as André Kertész and Henri Cartier-Bresson, equipped with their portable cameras, wandered by the cities registering moments of people’s life and of the cities’ itself, creating iconic images from the urban daily life.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris, 1956.
One of the most remarkable urban female photographer from the second half of the 19th century was, curiously, discovered in 2007, her name is Vivian Maier. An American that in her youth lived in Europe and got back to USA, establishing herself in New York, where she worked as a nanny. During her free time, Vivian walked around the streets of New York with her camera, registering people, urban scenes and the city’s social life. She never published her work as photographer and several of her films, apparently, were never developed. Her material with more than 100 thousand photos were found by chance, in an auction house specialised in abandoned objects in storages, very common in the USA.
Vivian Maier deserves her own article and I will do it as soon as possible. In my opinion, she is the personification of the true urban explorer photographer, moved exclusively by her dedication to photography.
Vivian Maier, Nova York.
I’m not sure if by influence from the great masters such as Bresson, or if by my personal preference for B&W, the fact is I can not see or produce urban photography different than monochromatic. Initially I though in philosophy a bit about this matter but then I reached the conclusion that the cities are so visually polluted, that reducing the array of hues to the only the hues of gray, helps to reduce also the excess visual information. I like things simple, minimalist type of way.
Nowadays, street or urban photography is worldwide spread. There are so many fine examples of street photographers, that would take a whole book just to cite them all. Therefore I’ll mention only one contemporary Brazilian photographer that dedicates himself to this style and develops an awesome work. I got to know his work recently through an interview he gave for the Brazilian edition of Digital Photography Magazine.
Tuca Vieira (author of this photo) defines himself as an independent photographer that develops projects about cities, urban landscapes, architecture and urban design. Coincidently, in his website’s section to street photography, there are only B&W photos. Perhaps I’m not alone in my preferences. But it is not only the photos from this section that we can classify as urban explorations. There are a lot of photos from São Paulo city, Berlin and several other places in the world, showing interesting views of architecture, urban landscapes and the cities’ social life.
In the interview that Tuca gave recently to the Digital Photographer Brazil Magazine (Ed. 30), he told about his preference for nocturnal photography during his stay at Berlin, which allowed him to shoot places, usually full of people, completely empty. I’ll not extend myself in this topic, because as Bresson and Vivian, Tuca deserves an article dedicated entirely to his work.
Tuca Vieira, Berlin.
I wanted to mention Tuca because his preference for nocturnal photography, and his motives, brings up one the several possibilities of urban exploration photography, the nocturnal photography. The possibilities to create images that this condition has to offer are huge. Well created and produced, those images show potential to be remarkable, just take a look on some of Tuca’s images from Berlin to have an idea.
Monochromatic or colourful, urban photography encompass a wide range of possibilities. We can focus our lenses in the people going on and about; in the urban scenes that develops around us every day and in a way, never repeat themselves; we can focus on the architecture; on the several building styles and urban design; there so many options in the cities, and each of those options presents their own challenges.
To focus your lenses in people, can be intimidating, as much to the photographer than to the subject. IT’s almost an art in itself to know to portrait unknown people without causing conflicts or embarrassing situations. Which is the best technic, to approach people, talk to them and obtain their authorization before take the shot or to stay away, use a tele lens and try to be more inconspicuous as possible? Every one stands for their own option, but I think that in reality, each strategy has its own merit and application, depending on the situation, the place and the people affected. The ideal would be acquire experience enough to know how to interpret the situations and choose the best approach for each one of them.
Architecture photography seems to be easy, just use a wide angle lens and shoot the entire building, right? Wrong. Many times, small details creates a more interesting image than a panoramic image of the building. Electricity wires, traffic lights, people, cars, buses, billboards, the cities are pollutes not only with toxic gases, but with excessive visual information too; we almost never get to see an angle where the subject to be photographed is not covered by foreign elements that spoils the composition.
And what about safety? From my own experience I can tell that the best part of photographing in Europe it’s not the variety of interesting places to photograph, but the peace of mind to wander about at any time of day and night, carrying your equipment without worrying about it. Ok, it´s not entirely safe, but for sure it’s possible to do it taking some basic precautions.
Here in Brazil, in any major city, specially wonderful places to photograph such as São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Brasília, you need to think twice before you get out carrying your camera, whatever is the type/model, imagine then wander aimlessly around those cities’ downtown, backpack full of equipment, camera at eye level, during the night? The result is obvious.
It´s required You need to be very careful as in planning your photographic outing, walk in group, hire a guide and a security agent, in summary, several attitudes that will reduce the risk of facing difficult and perilously situations and, unfortunately, at the same time, reduce your freedom of movement and creativity.
Carlos Alexandre Pereira, Inside Edinburgh, Edinburgh, 2013.
Photographic urban exploration, a very interesting activity, that offers great opportunities to know cities in an unique form, to produce remarkable images and have the feeling that you’re participating in some bigger, the recording of life and history of a city.