The City Lost & Found: Capturing New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, 1960-1980: A Discussion with the Exhibition Curators
The American city of the 1960s and 1970s witnessed seismic physical changes and social transformations, from shifting demographics and political demonstrations to the aftermath of decades of urban renewal. In this climate of upheaval and uncertainty, photographers, filmmakers, urban planners, architects, and performance artists focused on the potential and the complexity of urban places, creating provocative and visually compelling statements about the three largest cities in the United States. Together the works on view in The City Lost and Found blur the lines between art, activism, and journalism and demonstrate the deep connections between art practices and the political, social, and geographic realities of American cities in a tumultuous era.
The exhibition’s three curators, Katherine Bussard, Alison Fisher, and Greg Foster-Rice, sat down with Anna Brouwer, associate editor at the Museum, to discuss the show and the curatorial process.
Each of you came to the project with particular expertise. Can you say a bit about that and how the exhibition came together?
GFR: I’m a photo historian, and the origins of the project were that Kate and I had both developed independent projects looking at artist-practitioners during this time period and their engagement with, in Kate’s case, the street and in my case, images and ideas about the city more generally. So I came at this from a conventional art historical approach, but then I wanted to look at a wider range of photographs. And I think that’s one of the strong suits of the exhibition—including someone like Romare Bearden, who uses collage in a work like The Block II to not just make or document an image of the city and extend our notions of documentary—because it’s a depiction of a specific block, Lenox Avenue between 132nd and 133rd Streets—but also to create an impression of city life that therefore exists as a metaphor for the broader city.
KB: As Greg mentioned, I was working on the subject of street photography, particularly a body of photographs made by Martha Rosler and their relationship to an area in New York City that was especially destitute. And I was trying to understand a bit about that location against the financial crises of the 1970s. I was very excited then to hear Greg talk about the ways that he had been thinking about Bearden’s collage as one artist’s reaction to life in the city and even to the city’s textures and its various histories. And that is one of the things that broadened my perspective, to say nothing of the architectural knowledge Alison brought to this project.
AF: There was an interest in having a more nitty-gritty understanding of cities from a planning and architectural point of view, and so that’s where I came into the project. My research had focused on urban questions in the 1960s and ’70s, topics such as experimental architecture and public housing and planning. Photography has always been a part of architectural practice, but it has been a revelation working with Kate and Greg and discovering the intertwined histories of the building and the representation of cities.
Can you describe how the exhibition examines shifting photographic and cinematic practices in this period?
KB: There is an evolution in photographic and cinematic practices, but one of the changes is actually a shift to photography and to film, especially in urban planning practice, and, Alison, I would love for you to jump in here, but we really were very surprised to see how wholeheartedly photography was embraced by urban planners in city plans.
AF: Yes, and we found not only that planners were interested in using documentary photography to illustrate planning concepts but also that some of the devices that had been created throughout the later half of the twentieth century, like the photo-essay, which comes from a more populist context, began to be appropriated into things like the Plan for New York City.
GFR: Along with art, documentary, and urban planning practices borrowing from one another at this time, photographers and cinematographers are also comingling. So one of the interesting developments is the adoption of very similar techniques and technologies by cinematographers, such as the direct cinematic approach and the use of smaller handheld cameras—like those used by street photographers—to make films in a sort of guerilla filmmaking style. And then you have photographers like Gordon Parks, who ends up adopting some of his photographs into a slideshow-like cinematic depiction of the life of a family in Harlem.
I think one major interest in conceiving the exhibition has been the city as a dynamic stage for social action, in which visual production is a part of the lived experience of the city and also a reflection outward that influences public policy and public perception. Can you talk a little about this?
GFR: Photography and cinematography function as mediums both for documenting and for shaping the potential for the city during this period, which is something that is being explored by many of the actors or agents in the exhibition. They were beginning to recognize the dualistic quality of photography and cinematography—that every photograph is a document of the actions that happened before the lens of the camera, but it’s also an edited and in some cases proposed vision of that moment.
AF: As film and photography became a language that was shared across disciplines, they also became a means of getting scholarly points of view out into the mainstream. We screened Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles [in Chicago], and it’s such an odd film because it’s basically a lecture, but it’s also this riotous celebration of pop culture. And that is really a way that a lot of objects in this show are working. They provide a visceral experience of the city but also allow for new principles or ways of seeing that have a didactic or anticipatory quality.
KB: Right. Speaking of anticipatory, the demonstration photographs that we have from the myriad protests and upheavals and uprisings in this period reveal that the people participating in the demonstrations understood that their image as a group would circulate and shape public understanding of what was happening in these cities.
GFR: As Alison said, I think that quality of adopting mass media to reach a broader audience is really key, and photography, cinematography, and television allowed these various practitioners to reach the widest possible audience on topics that were already on the tip of a lot of people’s tongues during the ’60s and ’70s because of the social and economic tumult these cities were experiencing.
KB: And you have the heyday of something like Life magazine in the 1960s, which comes to a more or less abrupt halt at the start of the 1970s, as television was becoming ubiquitous. So by the time of the demonstrations surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the protesters think nothing of chanting “the whole world is watching,” because they understood that in a live television broadcast their message would be delivered internationally.
What does this mean for architecture and planning—not just the use of photographs in planning documents but for how people began to think about neighborhoods and streets being participatory?
AF: This actually has much wider reach than what we tried to cover in our show. We started with Jane Jacobs, as she is the first person to articulate all of these things together. Hers is in some ways a reactionary perspective, trying to undermine top-down tropes of the earlier twentieth century, when planners surveyed the aging built environment and diagnosed it as if it were an ailing patient. And what Jacobs was basically saying is that there is no patient. The city is healthy because of, and not in spite of, its communities, streets, and small-scale historical neighborhoods. And this leads to a push for the decentralization and popularization of planning decisions, which Mayor John Lindsay picked up as one of his administration’s main principles. But in the architectural discipline it’s problematic. Some architects tried to embrace this new populism while others retreated to the confines of the discipline.
KB: You mentioned top down, Alison, and this shift away from looking at, say, an entire city block to looking at public spaces, like city parks, or a vibrant street with all of its activities and shops and stoops and interactions, so there’s a different visual. Instead of thinking about something from an aerial perspective, everything is instead oriented toward a pedestrian perspective, and that is very visible in the exhibition.
AF: And we have distilled this to a kind of catch phrase—the shift from aerial to street views—but it is literally the dismantling of the all-seeing eye in terms of the legislation, planning, and visualization of cities.
GFR: Some of the artists go a step further and use the act of making photographs in the street to instigate social interactions. So for someone like Mierle Laderman Ukeles, the documentation of her performance Touch Sanitation, in which she shakes the hands of 8,500 sanitation workers, itself becomes an act. While she was doing the performance for the camera, she asked bystanders to shake the sanitation workers’ hands as well. So, here, a photographic act becomes a moment of social engagement and dialogue and not just a depiction of it.
AF: Yes, and it becomes a political act—a reaction to the vilification of the workers during sanitation strikes earlier in the 1960s. And this complete interpenetration of politics, imaging, planning, and policy is one of the reasons that I think we are so excited about this show.
Can you speak about your desire to study these three cities together given that most scholarship has focused on each city separately?
KB: Writings by the scholar Janet Abu-Lughod were an important part of this process. Her remarkable contribution to the field of sociology was comparative urban analysis, and her three cities were the same three cities we ended up arriving at—New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. We found the model really instructive and illuminating and deeply in need of visualizing. It became very important to us to bring images to that history that would animate it—not just illustrate it—and that would actually demonstrate the changes that were occurring in these cities.
AF: And I think that even more broadly, we were interested in moving beyond silos. Conventional art historical looking at the cities is really city-by-city, and not only that, it’s often narrowed down further to media—photographic looking at the city, performance looking at the city. Architecture and design are even farther away. So one of the goals of the project was to break down boundaries not only across cities but also across media and disciplines.
GFR: Right, I think what is so interesting is that photography is the thing that runs through all these different projects—whether they’re performance art or sculpture or installations. Photography becomes an interface. And it opened up some interesting avenues for exploration, about how cities were going through similar social and economic developments and artists were reacting to similar technological or stylistic developments in their fields.
Along these lines, the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition had contributions by more than twenty scholars in a wide range of fields, becoming a site for cross-city and cross-disciplinary scholarship.
AF: We wanted to capture the work of historians who were challenging these boundaries and who were thinking about the city as their subject in tandem with artworks. And we wanted to invite experts from disciplines beyond our personal expertise—so planners, people who work in American studies—but making sure that the people we invited were really invested in interpreting images.
GFR: And this extends to the inclusion of film historians, who contributed a breadth of understanding about different kinds of films, from films produced for planning departments, to conventional Hollywood narratives about the decline of the city, to films by artist-activist groups—like Kartemquin Films in Chicago—who worked in the streets to advocate for the rights of citizens through first-person narratives about issues like gentrification.
KB: A very early goal for this book was to create a kind of dialogue—layers of writing that would overlap and speak to one another. And one of the ways we did that was through conventional object treatments, where an author spends a couple of pages on a single object, but we also asked contributors to pick up very broad themes and try to address those in one of the three cities.
This project was developed before events in Ferguson, Missouri, and in Staten Island spurred protests around the country in 2014. However, there are strong parallels between those protests and events from the 1960s and ’70s that are explored in the exhibition—the images from both eras suggest that we are still dealing with many of the same problems: racism, police brutality, and the livability of cities.
GFR: Yes, it was always our desire that people would walk out of the exhibition and reengage with their own cities, but we could never have anticipated what would happen in Ferguson.
KB: Certainly one of the reasons we chose these three cities was that they were barometers for what was happening in other cities around the U.S. in that period. And it has been remarkable to watch over the past several months—as we wrapped up this catalogue, as we installed the show in Chicago, as we now bring the show to Princeton—image after image in the media of people taking to their streets, taking to city centers and occupying them to demand change. I think the way that cities remain at the center of a demand for a change is really inspiring. And it’s one of the hopes that we’ve always had for this exhibition, as Greg said, that people walk away from it and feel that they can’t help but look at their own environment differently.
The City Lost and Found: Capturing New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, 1960–1980 has been organized by the Art Institute of Chicago and the Princeton University Art Museum. The exhibition was curated by Katherine A. Bussard, Peter C. Bunnell Curator of Photography at the Princeton University Art Museum; Alison Fisher, Harold and Margot Schiff Associate Curator of Architecture and Design at the Art Institute of Chicago; and Greg Foster-Rice, associate professor of the history, theory, and criticism of photography at Columbia College Chicago.
The exhibition at Princeton has been made possible by generous support from Christopher E. Olofson, Class of 1992; the Bagley Wright, Class of 1946, Contemporary Art Fund; Susan and John Diekman, Class of 1965; Sakurako and William Fisher, Class of 1979, through the Sakana Foundation; an anonymous fund; the Virginia and Bagley Wright, Class of 1946, Program Fund for Modern and Contemporary Art; M. Robin Krasny, Class of 1973; David H. McAlpin Jr., Class of 1950; James R. and Valerie A. McKinney; the Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Exhibitions Fund; and Elchin Safarov and Dilyara Allakhverdova. Further support has been made possible by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts/Department of State, a Partner Agency of the National Endowment for the Arts, and by the Partners and Friends of the Princeton University Art Museum. The publication has been made possible by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; the Barr Ferree Foundation Fund for Publications, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University; and Christopher E. Olofson, Class of 1992