Italo Calvino once wrote about a city where all connections, real and imagined, were traced out with different colored yarns, from building to building, person to person, and object to object. This had the secondary effect of turning the city into one giant knot, impassible to all who were unable to ignore these relationships made tangible.
All cities are knots of connections, as are all networks. These huge accumulations function precisely because of the connections from one element to another, not in spite of them. Cities gain their character because of the links between the different parts. Sometimes this is mapped out and becomes a part of a city’s normal functions, like a subway or bus line. More often, these connections are left hidden and, through repeated use, become part of a city’s personal or collective mythology.
These connections branch out and inwards, forming an almost living organic being made manifest by creeping layers and time which consume and exhume, leaving traces of individual relationships etched in the rock and soil of a city, like coral fossils endlessly inhabited by unrelated generations.
City of Salt is a metropolis described in photographs, a place that is simultaneously all cities and one imagined city. It is an exploration into the nature of these aggregations of connections – what holds them together and divides them, and the links they share within themselves and with each other. The city as node and the city as fungus and a visual evidence of the network hidden below it.
The city becomes metaphor for our own tangled, globe-spanning knots of relationships; a network made manifest and a creature that consumes, swelling up from below as lines between me and you and us and them catch and snag and agglomerate.
Nicholas Calcott was born in 1983 in Midland, MI. He lives and works between New York City and Paris.
Did you develop the concept for City of Salt before you starting making the photographs? Or was it something you discovered while shooting and editing?
I typically start researching a project (consciously or unconsciously) well before I begin shooting it. I tend to spend months just reading up on a subject and conducting interviews and sketching out visuals and etc.
That being said, all of this work just allows me to begin to live in the world of the work that I’m about to do – once I begin shooting, I just allow the photographs to take me wherever they’re going to take me, even if that’s pretty far from my original idea. I’ll periodically create an edit to kind of see where I am with the work, but it doesn’t really all come together until I make a final edit and try and see what the work has ended up being about…
“City of Salt is a metropolis described in photographs, a place that is simultaneously all cities and one imagined city.” Where in the process did you start thinking about creating an imagined city and what attracted you to that idea?
Well, I’ve always been interested in places and our relationships to them, so this concept was not so far from other work I’ve done in the past… I suppose the seed of it was hatched the first time I read ‘Invisible Cities,’ the Italo Calvino book I mention in the artist statement for the project, but this was years ago. The book is a fantastical description of Marco Polo’s travels through a vast empire, bringing back descriptions of cities he encounters to describe to the emperor. As the reader progresses through the book, he/she realizes that in each description of a particular city, Polo is actually describing elements of all cities… (I once interviewed Ken Schles about this book and its particular interest for photographers which led to a blog post – Invisible Cities is also a book about signs and, by extension, photography – http://www.12thpress.com/?p=777)
This, to me, was the germ of an idea – with this project, I was trying to drill down to an urban essence which should be familiar to any inhabitant of any city in the world. But, with this process, I found that I was unconsciously creating my own imagined city, similar to many cities but unique in its own way.
I first stumbled up on psychogeography a few years ago and have tried to read what I can. I’m not going to pretend I fully understand the concept but the general idea of creating one’s own version of a city by exploring it on foot has always appealed to me as a photographer. Before I moved to Los Angeles in 2004 basically all I knew was the mythology of the city that I learned through art and media. When I started living there though I saw a much different version of the city. What I found interesting was the dichotomy between my version and the mythology. Naturally my version was heavily influenced by the mythology which might say something about my expectations, I don’t know. I could have easily chose to live in the San Fernando Valley rather than West Hollywood which would have yielded a much different experience.
When I moved to New York it was a bit different because there seems to be more of a universal experience in New York than Los Angeles. Perhaps it has something to do with the density, subway system and gravitational pull of a place like Manhattan, I’m not sure, but I’ve always felt there’s more of a shared urban experience in New York than Los Angeles.
With your project, there’s really no historical mythology. You’ve stripped that away which as a viewer is liberating but also creates a bit of an uneasy feeling. We don’t know where we are which forces us to perhaps create our own mythology.
Another important book in my research, on the subject of psychogeography, is Jonathan Rabin’s ‘Soft City’. I highly recommend it…
And yeah, I’m interested in these collective mythologies of cities, but as you note, they can be a bit distracting. It was really important for me not to have Paris seem too much like Paris when I photographed it, or New York too much like New York. Because then the images become about the romance and history of a particular city, and not about the network that we call a city.
That’s another important point – in this project, I’ve been very interested in the social construction of a city. Not just how we think about cities in a social context, but also how cities are a very real coming together of large diverse groups of people. A city as a metaphor for a virtual world, and a city that, in many ways is unmoored in the physical world.
I’m very interested in the idea that photography is developing a new visual vocabulary in the context of the digital age, and this project can be seen as my own contemporary response to the American street photography of the 50s, 60s, and 70s that took the city as its setting and that has gone so far to establishing the photographic vocabulary that we have all come of age in. It’s oblique, but I do think this work comes out of that tradition and is an indirect response to it…
It’s interesting that you mention the street photography tradition. I guess I didn’t really think about that but it’s interesting. As is the idea that “photography is developing a new visual vocabulary in the context of the digital age.” It really is kind of amazing that in one day you can see be exposed to dozens of photographers that you’ve never heard of before. I’m on the internet all day and nearly every single day I find new work that I like. I also think we’re just at the very early stages of developing new ways to present photography on the web. I don’t think we’ve really explored it and used the tools to really develop an immersive experience. How do you see the web impacting photography’s visual vocabulary?
Well, that is the question, isn’t it?
I mean, it’s inevitable that how we picture the world has changed in reaction to a big change in how we physically see the world (through our screens), but I don’t think those changes are really going to be clear to us until we look back on this era with a bit of art-historical distance. I mean, there’s a million photographers experimenting with a million ways to picture our modern world – which of these ways will be important to what comes next is never completely clear at the time, of course.
I suppose the most evident changes have been to the distribution channels – a point that has been touched on by almost everyone. But, I think it is worth noting that the kind of work we see is in many ways dictated by how it’s delivered to us. The boom in self-published photo books and ‘zines is one example of this – Obviously, it wouldn’t have been possible without affordable desktop printing, etc. etc., but I also think that it’s brought forth a generation of photographers that wouldn’t have necessarily been seen beforehand, or, at best, would have been discovered much later in their careers with very different bodies of work.
Do you find yourself looking at work on the internet more or less these days? And did you find any work on the web that inspired City of Salt? (I suppose that might be a bit of a ridiculous question)
Like, I think, a lot of us, my habits of web viewing follow a bit of a sine curve – My rss feed reader will build up, I’ll be looking at a lot of stuff, and then I’ll reach a saturation point and begin deleting feeds until it’s down to a level where it starts building up again.
These days, though, I’m having a hard time looking at work on the web because I’m finding that it tends to run together… Not that everything’s the same, but rather because it all shows up in a similar way, it’s hard for me to view it as anything but one large self-curated show or a series of individual images as opposed to a distinct series assembled with purpose by an artist…
Because of that, I can, I think, reasonably say that though there was a lot of web work that probably influenced me, there’s very little that I can specifically point to… Somewhat ironically, most of my specific reference points come in the form of books, photo and otherwise, and actual conversations I’ve had with people.
I think photographers have an interesting relationship with the internet. For so many of them, it has become their primary distribution platform. On the other hand, I think most still strive for something tangible like a book, or being published in magazines. So, what does that make the web? Just a marketing tool? Maybe tablets can start on the path of changing that but I’m not sure. I try not to pass too much judgement on work until I’ve seen it in the format it was intended, normally a book, or gallery show. But even a gallery show can be limiting because you’re only seeing a select number of images from a project. Where do you stand with this project? Is there a book planned? And if so, how has that impacted how you approach the project?
I think in many ways that part of the reason why it seems like a lot of work we see on the internet is meant as a book or show is because our expectations of what a project is are based on the idea of completion and finality. So when web work doesn’t mimic the finality and succinctness of an exhibition or book, we generally don’t consider it a project, and work that does have that finality and succinctness feels like it would work better in analog form.
That being said, there is a lot of work that is more than just marketing out there that works better on the web than in a show or book (one comes to mind immediately – the work of Patrick Tsai, My Little Dead Dick and now Talking Barnacles but there’s plenty out there), and if you enlarge the boundaries of what we’d consider a project, there’s even more (Jody Rogac’s ‘Lately’ work being another example, appearing semi regularly on her blog and now collected on her website).
As far as City of Salt, it was always shot with the book form in mind, though not necessarily a single book, per se. I’m feeling pretty maximalist with this work, so the idea of limiting it to 40 or so images (which is what was in the show) seems very low. As I mentioned before, the work isn’t quite finished for me, and I like the idea of leaving the work open-ended for the moment. Indeed, even though the show has closed, I’ll be traveling soon and hope to shoot a bunch more stuff…
Since the project is open ended, and you plan on shooting more, how do you expect it to evolve? Are there perhaps new ideas that you want to explore that stick to the general theme but perhaps expand on it?
I don’t really know, to be honest. I’m just going to shoot and see how it evolves. I do feel that most of the main arguments are there in the project as it stands, but I think that a lot of them could be stated in different ways, so I think that’s probably how I’ll approach the next round of shooting…
That being said, our idea of ‘city’ is constantly evolving, so it’s entirely possible that I’ll find something that is missing and needs to be added. For one, I’ve never been to fast growing cities in Africa like Lagos or Johannesburg, and I think that if I were to see that my ideas on this subject might radically change…
It’d be great to see what you come back with from places like Lagos or Johannesburg. Maybe some of those fast growing cities in China too. It’s amazing how many most westerners have never heard of but they’re huge and growing fast. It was mentioned in the Gallerist article, and I agree, that there’s a futuristic vibe to the work. What I like about that vibe is that it’s somewhat neutral. It’s not a dystopia but it’s also not the glittering, technological city of the future. It’s almost a parallel universe, as if you’ve caught a glimpse of another civilization on a planet similar to earth. Maybe I’m reading too much into it! But that’s part of the pleasure of photography for me, the viewer brings their own ideas to the work.
I guess my final question would be, how do you know when a project is done, and what do you hope the viewer takes away from the work?
And then one fun one.
What five photographers do you think people should check out right now?
Oh, I have no idea when the project will be done… The subject is so broad that it could go on forever… Though, conceivably the future could outpace the content and then it’ll be easier to finish than to start over.
And for the photographers to check out, there’re a ton that I really love, but I’ll stick with 5 whose work directly influenced this project – Aglaia Konrad, Bertrand Fleuret, Yutaka Takanashi, Oliver Sieber, and Katje Stuke.
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