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Institute of Art, Design and Technology Dun Laoghaire

School of Creative Arts

Modernism, Modernity and The Photographic Image

Urbanisation is regarded as a central concern of Modernity.


Discuss this with reference to European photography from the
modern era.
Incorporate in your answer conceptions of Modernity and
urbanisation from the period.

By Jonathan Ho N00130185
Thursday 15th January 2015

Submitted to the Faculty of Film, Art and Creative Technologies in candidacy for the BA
(hons) in Photography 2017

This essay will explore various existing views and debates around the idea of
modernity and the relationship between modernity and urbanisation.
Before we start, let us try to define the fundamentals of modernity. Modernity can be a term
used to distinguish the lifestyles, attitudes, and developments from life in the modern era and
their impact on human culture, politics, and institutions. What can be drawn from this
definition? Is modernity simply a periodical and anthropological documentation of society, or
simply denoted as a passage of time?1 The essence of modernity is a lot more intricate and
philosophical than this, many would argue. Marshall Berman argues that modernity is
to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth,
transformation of ourselves and the world - and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy
everything we have, everything we know, everything we are. 2

Bermans definition of modernity draws on from an existential and psychological perspective,


that modernity is embedded in the human psyche but must be unlocked at the stage when one
becomes self-aware and comfortable living in an paradoxic environment that provides tension
between social and personal development and decay. While his interpretation of modernity and
the idea of being a modernist relates closely to urbanisation and urban environments, it
focuses predominantly on society one big, modern cityscape environment that inevitably shapes
the individual, rather than the individual shaping the city. Charles Baudelaire, on the other hand,
gives his interpretation of modernity as a more mindful and resourceful concept, that modernity
is a way of living, rather than a specific way of thinking. He titles this way of life as that of the
flneur. Baudelaire describes this way of life as a way of opening ones eyes to the world and

Latour, Bruno, We have never been modern. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press. 1993. Pg 10

Berman, Marshall. All That Is Solid Melts Into Air; The Experience of Modernity. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.:
Viking Penguin, 1988. Print. Pg. 15
2

to be conscious of the transitory nature of the world, and learning from this nature. As he states
it, to be modern is to distill the eternal from the transitory.3 Baudelaires vision of modernity
and inception of the flneur dictates a new method of thinking and interacting with the modern
urban environment, using its ephemeral essence to enhance oneself, rather than simply
acknowledging it. This mindset coincides somewhat closely to the teachings of the bible, in
which we [should] fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is
temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.[2 Corinthians 4:18]4

The best method to define modernity is through illustration, by using this image
by Imre Kinszki (Fig. 1). This image is a stark illustration of modernity and helps ground the
concept of modernity. The image contains a long, metal bridge hovering over a body of water
with its reflection slightly visible extending into the background which is shrouded in fog. This
disables the viewer from estimating its physical distance, suggesting the bridge continues on for
infinity. On the bridge are street lamps and multiple people, presumably men, all wearing black
clothing and similar hats walking in the same direction into the foggy background. One person
can be seen near the centre of the image standing by the side of the bridge gazing out in the
distance. From what can be read in this image is the ambiguity and uncertainty of what is to
come. The bridge, stretching out far into the background with an unknown beginning point and
an invisible end point, can be read as the journey of humanity: sturdy, linear, with its reflection
always visible to us, but with no clear destination or visible path. The fog that shrouds the end
of the bridge can be read as modernity, this intangible yet visible substance that disorientates us,
3

Baudelaire, Charles and Mayne, J., The painter of modern life, London: Phaidon, 1964, Pg. 12

The Holy Bible: New International Version, Colorado Springs, CO., Biblica, 1973

but can also guides us. The person standing at the edge of bridge gazing into the distance could
be read as the flneur; a person who takes the moment in its essence to peer into it, understand
it, and enjoy it along their journey while the rest march on like industrious ants.5

(Fig 1.) Imre Kinszki, Untitled (Bridge and Fog), c. 1930

Nietzsche, F. The Dawn of Day. 1st ed. Project Gutenburg. 2012 Pg. 184

Since modernity, in its essence, is such an abstract and intangible concept, it is


hard to fully define it in the context of time (since it is as abstract and intangible as time itself),
but when we focus on specific periods its context becomes a bit more visible and is arguably
responsible for many developments throughout society - whether through its misinterpretation,
its ignorance, or in some cases, its blatant objectivity. This is where the concept of urbanisation
comes into question. Urbanisation becomes one with modernity in its objectivity. It is without a
doubt that urbanisation and modernity are often confused as the one in the same. However,
urbanisation and modernity are intrinsically linked and come together hand-in-hand, since the
concept for urbanisation and industrialisation ultimately stems from modernity. The idea of
urbanisation was coined during periods of industrial revolution across Europe and the rest of the
world. With the rise in industrialisation across Europe, the spread of urbanisation and the
concept of modernity was drastically taking form within society. This concept of modernity
broadened and encompassed the urban landscape at the same rate as the landscape grew
outwards in all directions, shifting the urban axis from the horizontal to the vertical with the
introduction of the skyscraper. These industrial monuments changed the urban landscape
forever and shifted the human perspective from the horizontal gaze to the vertical gaze.6 The
industrialisation of transport also brought a change in perspective to the urban landscape. While
standing still, all appears stationary and solid, yet with the mass-production of automated
vehicles and the easier access to rail transport, the urban landscape could now be viewed as one
flurrying blur of colour or an animated plane of movement through a sheet of glass.

McQuire, Scott. Visions of modernity. London: SAGE Publications. 1998. Pg 209

Thanks to urbanisation, this gave the idea of modernity a whole new, visible
experience. As a result of this change in perspective and experience, photography expanded and
developed in new ways, fixing its gaze to these experiences and creating a tangible experience
of modernity. Urbanisation and modernity had such a huge impact on photography during the
early 20th century that various art movements such as New Objectivity and Surrealism sprung
out from the depths of this new experience of vision. As a result of this, photography became a
pivotal means to establish the very terms of modernity during these periods, creating this new
vision to familiarise the public with this new concept of modernity.
One of the most visible manifestations of modernity in the interwar years involved a sea of
change in womens fashions, including hairstyles, makeup and physical ideals - for example,
wearing brassieres instead of corsets and donning vibrant makeup and adornments. The
prospect of modernity during this period gave mixed emotions of elation and anxiety to both
men and women in their struggle to cope with their shift in identity and expression, and
through photography, this was amplified throughout the public, creating clichs of modernity
and idealisms of beauty. With the expansion of industrialisation and urbanisation, this brought
a complete shift in the lifestyles of populations during the prewar and postwar years, for
example, workers moving from an agricultural lifestyle to an industrial lifestyle.7

Witkovsky, M. and Demetz, P. Foto - Modernity in Central Europe, 1918-1945. Washington, DC: National
Gallery of Art in association with Thames and Hudson. 2007
7

This image (Fig. 2) by one of the famous Bauhaus photographers, Hans Joachim Rose,
illustrates and reflects on this lifestyle. From what can be seen, a tall metal fence frames the
image and is slightly out of focus. In the background lies the landscape of a town with a row of
buildings. In the centre of the image, a large, mechanical crane is lying stationary on a
construction site with four men with similar apparel walking towards the row of buildings. Two
horses are also visible barely sticking their heads into the frame. This image can be read as a
depiction of the rise of urbanisation and industrialisation. The crane, which towers over the
workers and the buildings is the obvious sign of industrial technology and mechanical labour,
yet it is ominously foreshadowed by the ornaments of the metal fence which appear almost like
knives in the image. This appears even more ominous as three of the four men in the image
seem to evenly fit into the gaps of the fence right underneath these knives, reminiscent of the
image of a guillotine, completely unbeknownst to them. This can be seen as an effect of
industrialisation, the knowledge or ignorance of the fact that ones life could be changed in an
instance, for the better or for worse (predominantly the latter.) These quasi-knives are also
hovering over the two horses jutting in from the right edge of the image. The horses, a symbol
of strength, speed and loyalty, may represent the industrialisation of agriculture. The fact that
the photographer has willingly included the immediate edge of the frame with the sprocket
holes visible is to highlight the definite border of the image, so while the horses are sitting on
the verge of this image border, it may signify the end of their regime, the end of traditional
labour and the use of mechanic and industrial labour.

(Fig. 2) Hans Joachim Rose,


Construction Site, 1930-1933

While urbanisation may have had its disadvantages within a society, it has also
brought about many advantages and advances in thinking and learning about the world.
Urbanisation has brought people from all reaches together in one area such as a city - whether
that may be positive or negative is dependant - but nonetheless, it does create a large, modern
community. With the concept of modernity, it allowed this urban, modern community to spread
ideas, share innovations, create, explore their new environment and use their new environment

to influence them and help them define themselves as either a community or as expressive
individuals. Another positive aspect of urbanisation is a sense of pride as a community nationalism. Urbanisation, through the concept of modernity, has enabled these modern
communities to identify themselves as a modern community, a collective entity of people who
share a common environment with similar lifestyles and culture. Examples of this can be seen
throughout history - one specific example being the Meiji restoration period in Japan.
The Meiji restoration period occurred near the end of 19th century until the beginning of 20th
century and brought about political uprising from the traditional shogunate to a new imperial
Emperor. At the same time, this also induced the modernisation of Japan through the influence
of the Western powers. This modernisation changed Japan completely and created a new, urban
modern community for the Japanese towns and cities. This evoked a stark rise in Japanese
nationalism as the public started to become aware of their new modern community and
respected this new experience of modernity and urbanisation with an overwhelming sense of
pride.8
To conclude, urbanisation has been a key element of modernity and has enabled
the concept of modernity to manifest itself amongst a modern community through a new vision
of life, modern ways of thinking, new perspectives, and new experiences. Modernity, realised
through urbanisation, does not only exist as an experience inspired by new urban environments,
it also promotes a plethora of creativity and innovation, and promotes the rejuvenation and
revolution of new ideas, art, and cultural awareness - all made widely accessible to the masses
by the medium of photography.

Stearns, P. The Oxford encyclopedia of the modern world. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2008

Bibliography

Baudelaire, C. and Mayne, J. The Painter of Modern Life - and other essays. London:
Phaidon. (1964)

Berman, M. All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity. New York,
N.Y.,: Viking Penguin. (1988)

Latour, B. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
(1993)

McQuire, S. Visions of Modernity: Representation, Memory, Time and Space in the


Age of the Camera. London: SAGE Publications. (1998)

Nietzsche, F. The Dawn of Day. 1st ed. Project Gutenburg. 2012


Stearns, P. The Oxford Encyclopedia Of The Modern World. Oxford: Oxford
University Press. (2008)

The Holy Bible: New International Version, Colorado Springs, CO., Biblica. (1973)

Witkovsky, M. and Demetz, P. Foto: Modernity in Central Europe, 1918-1945.


Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art in association with Thames and Hudson.
(2007)