I recently came across the essay “The Poetics of the Derive” written by Vincent Kaufmann. Not being that familiar with Debord’s Derive, and only slightly informed of its predecessor from the Surrealist Andre Breton and his walks through Paris, it quickly raised many questions to tackle. Most specifically the idea of looking at the early photographic works of Eugene Atget, and his systematic walks through Paris cataloging the ephemeral Paris of his time. One which was being demolished to make way for the Modern streets and boulevards that Debord and the Situationist would later lament in the same manner Atget did before. Yet, how might this theoretical construct of the Derive apply to the large amount of contemporary urbanscape photography found in the United States. And even more interesting the actual activity the photographer performs in order to find these locations.
Debord’s Derive is not simple a walk through the streets of the city, of chance encounters. Instead one must move rapidly and decisively through the urban space, with intention. When possible the practice should not be done alone, but in groups of two or three. They should be aware of their surroundings, of the “…ecological analysis of the absolute or relative character of fissures in the urban network, of the role of microclimates, of distinct neighborhoods with no relation to administrative boundaries, and above all of the dominating action of centers of attraction…” (link to essay) Thus the most talented photographers who’s oeuvre includes the investigation of the urbanscape. The walk itself, the interaction of operator, camera, and site breaks down the normal relationship we have with public urban spaces. Their activity alone is the Derive.
Breaking the rules of theory to return to Eugen Atget melancholic catalog of a ghostly Paris that is no longer. His photographs present to us the sites slated to be demolished, of the concrete reality of the demolition not just of squares and houses, but of the intricate means and subtle variations of the daily social realities created and maintained through public works and layout.
The pyschogeography. Atget’s photographs of a forgotten urbanscapes now stand like so many rectangular ghost, an archive of ephemera, of power structures that have morphed, shifted, become temporal and translucent. They function as nostalgic tombstones, racked nicely in a file, viewed sequentially, ordered and precise. Are Atget’s photographs any less powerful than they were in his time period? Or does the contemporary viewer see them only as quaint post cards, a romantic bygone era of a dirtier, grimmer, Paris leaving out the pychogeography of that site and the site that will replace it?
If Atget’s photographs have lost their power to be anything more than romantic nostalgic post cards and coffee table books, then what of the contemporary photographers working within the urbanscape. Their photographs present tangible realities, visual stand ins of the power structures, specifically in the United States. Yet is the mere representation of these sites enough, does it go far enough to instigate more than just chance encounters for the viewer looking at the photographs. And what of the Modernist aesthetic formal qualities laid over these sites. Atget’s Paris is grimy, dark, moody. Contemporary urbanscape photographs are made to be as beautiful as they are not in reality. The photographers activity of finding these sites is the derive, the photograph itself is the pyschogeography, the questioning. But unlike the gritty ghost of Atget’s Paris, their contemporary formal presentation, high gloss, bright colours, fends off the questions raised by their derive. Instead the viewer is left with one word, nostalgia. The photograph becomes a representation of the United States political landscape and the power structures in play as it slowly turns and morphs. Instead of critical action and engagement, we mourn. The United States is changing and morphing its political and social power structures while its identity as super power declines. Its intial status symbols and sturctures that came to represent power have shifted, take on new meaning. Like so many tombstones the contemporary photographic formal aesthetic and their beautiful rendering of the dynamic and shifting urbanscape moots any possible critical interaction. Instead we are presented with lovely nostalgia, and pretty memento mori.
Grant W. Ray
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