David Smith, Dan Schwartz, and Colin Montgomery
At the Elizabeth Roberts Gallery
to July 17
Images of Italy
At the Kathleen Ewing Gallery to July 17

The cityscape, one of photography’s oldest forms, is badly in need of rejuvenation. A staple of the art’s early days, the genre has been reinvented and transformed by successive generations of photographers; in recent years, it seems to have devolved into recapitulations of tired themes of the past. Two exhibitions now on view in Washington, at the Elizabeth Roberts and Kathleen Ewing Galleries, suggest the pitfalls, and occasional successes, of a recent resurgence of interest in this form.

From Daguerre’s first experimental photographs on the streets of Paris in the 1830s, cityscapes have always been about re-creating an environment for the viewer. Photographs of cities take an enormous organism and shrink it down into something you can hold. They provide a way of understanding a place, even possessing it. Cityscapes, in fact, offered the perfect subject for early photography. Streets and buildings remained blessedly still as the shutter yawned open; they did not force equipment-laden photographers to make long, bumpy jaunts into the hinterlands; and they produced images that could be instantly understood by a public not yet well versed in media imagery.

As the medium of photography matured, cityscapes did, too. In the 1860s, Charles Marville documented the vistas of the French capital from the ground, while the artist and impresario Nadar took to a balloon to do the same aerially. Around 1900, as Eugene Atget was systematically documenting the old byways of Paris, a slew of Americans—including Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, and Paul Strand—began committing the bustling metropolis of New York to photographic paper.

It was in New York that the cityscape, in a literal sense, reached its apogee. By the 1930s, the city was undergoing a massive skyscraper boom, which was captured memorably by such photographers as Margaret Bourke-White, Berenice Abbott, and Lewis Hine. The bold achievements in construction technology paired naturally with photography, the most industrial of art forms.

But a problem emerged: Once you’ve taken a picture of the soaring, gleaming art-deco façade of the Chrysler Building, it’s not so easy to make your cityscapes ever more dramatic. So during the second half of the 20th century, the cynicism and alienation that was felt broadly within American society pushed photographers to the anti-cityscape. The trend began modestly in the 1950s, when the likes of Robert Frank, William Klein, and Harry Callahan made cityscapes with a more ironic perspective, their images emphasizing the viewer’s dislocation rather than his connectedness to the place being photographed. Initially, the approach was a needed corrective to the sometimes Utopian documentation Bourke-White’s generation churned out. But in the ’60s and ’70s, photography’s sour mood metastasized into unrelenting gloom: Lee Friedlander’s vacant storefronts, William Eggleston’s lifeless downtowns, Lewis Baltz’s industrial-shed fringelands, and, most soulless of all, the cheesy strip malls and aging business districts of Stephen Shore’s landmark 1982 book, Uncommon Places.

These efforts were lauded, not unjustly, at the time, but there is only so far to go with the approach. It’s no more enlightening to be caught in a vicious circle of ever-worsening blight than in an endless search for beauty, as prevailed in the ’30s. The anti-cityscapes were both devoid of human emotion and also too easy to produce; the dystopic vision became almost a crutch. A spark of ingenuity was needed.

Belatedly, the Europeans—most notably Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, and Roland Fischer—are now returning to cityscapes with a new, more neutral formalism that, despite a sometimes off-putting bloodlessness, has at least broken the prevailing cycle of despair. And the 10 photographers now showing at Roberts and Ewing, if they do not have the renown of, say, a Gursky or a Struth, have at least, in their various ways, struggled to move the genre in a new direction.

Colin Montgomery, at Roberts, has chosen to document the “new town” planned developments of Hong Kong, which, he explains, were built in outlying areas over the past three decades to serve as bedroom communities for the city.

I focused particularly on the unique and elegant quality of the resulting living complexes, created with a staggering lack of flat land on which to build. To install safe and functioning communities with, at times, over 2,000 persons per acre, architects have used platform/ towers structures—essentially a contemporary synthesis of the Chinese walled-city with the brutal aesthetic of Corbusian high modernism.

This is, to be sure, a promising teaser about an unfamiliar region—a starting point, one might think, for an eye-opening slice of photography as sociology. But unfortunately, the buildings Montgomery documents are hideous, and Montgomery’s artistic eye is underdeveloped.

To be sure, a few images are well-composed, such as one of a skyline and moody mountain range that serve as the backdrop to a gently swerving superhighway, or the rendering of a beige tent, or perhaps a band shell, in a park. In both cases, the forms’ organic delicacy seems wholly, pleasingly, out of place with the rigid geometries of Montgomery’s Hong Kong. The other photographs, however, do little more than showcase the worst examples of ’60s modernism: circular “corncob” buildings, bubble windows, leopard-print façades, near-vacant plazas plunked between high-rises. One truly feels for the residents of the brutalist concrete structure in 2003’s Lai King, Entrance—Building # 2; the entranceway has less charm than a retaining wall and is made noticeably uglier by a slapdash red paint job.

Montgomery relates such vistas in, at best, workmanlike fashion, capturing only a mediocre degree of detail and displaying a lack of creativity in composition. He never captures a moment that embodies either pure beauty or even pure garishness, and he is apt to cut off the tops of buildings or otherwise arrange them in the frame in ways that don’t encourage exploration of resonances in line and shape.

Montgomery does succeed in establishing a sense of place, but that’s as far as it goes. It would be one thing if he were presenting an argument about how a misguided built environment dehumanizes its residents. But Montgomery’s view of the new towns, as stated in his accompanying writings, remains oddly jaunty; he labels the pictured communities, among other things, “expertly branded.” The dissonance between Montgomery’s optimistic words and pessimistic visuals garbles whatever message he hoped to send.

If Montgomery communicates mixed signals about his relationship with urbanism, New York City’s David Smith barely communicates at all. For his Outside Series, of which a generous 21 images are presented at Roberts, Smith wandered his home city in search of telltale visuals—not the grandiose skyscrapers of the ’30s, but whatever bits of wall or railing or sidewalk happened to catch his eye:

I am fascinated by the way these images walk the line between dynamic, decorative objects and objects of seeming inconsequence—how they represent the transformation from the banal to the extraordinary. I see this transformation as being parallel to the construction of the urban environment. Basic forms interact, overlap, and repeat to build a backdrop possessing diverse meanings and a rich character.

Be skeptical of this justification—very skeptical. His forms are certainly banal, but they achieve neither the extraordinary nor the transformative. A few of Smith’s photographs are pleasant enough vignettes, such as a bright pink flower in dirt, against a background of yellow wall. Others, though, while documenting objects that are apt to be overlooked, hardly possess the compelling geometries or unusual color schemes that merit placement in a gallery. A satellite dish resting on the ground next to a shingled wall? Chain-link fencing hung with orange windbreaks? Even, in one case, some unidentifiable crud on a window? There is little to suggest the distinctiveness of New York. Smith’s universe could be Anywheresville, and not a particularly intriguing Anywheresville, at that.

Dan Schwartz, the third photographer at Roberts, turns his lens on details of Washington architecture. To judge from the limited number of prints on view, he appears to have a better sense of composition than his fellow exhibitors: A near-identical line of row houses, an Escher-like series of architectural arches, a portion of a bridge span decorated with dentilwork—all suggest a sense of familiarity with the urban environment that is Washington.

But the most noticeable thing about Schwartz’s works is their color. The row houses feature harmonious detailing in red, orange, yellow, and green, backed by a clear blue sky. The stone arches come not only in the expected shade of beige but also in red. And the bridge span includes a mix of tones, including orange, yellow, blue, and green. Schwartz acknowledges that he uses color manipulation, and sometimes manipulation of content, to make his prints. The artist is clearly trying to test the limits of the cityscape with such methods—and, of course, to improve his photographs—and a number of his resulting images are indeed striking. Even so, Schwartz might consider trusting his source material: In some cases, the unvarnished original would have looked equally good.

The structuring principle behind the current seven-photographer exhibition at Ewing is Italy, not cities, so in this show, the subject matter varies a bit. Frank DiPerna produces an uneven but occasionally inspired vision of rural portions of Salerno; Claudia Smigrod offers an understated series of black-and-whites documenting scenes around of the modest-sized Tuscan town of Cortona (which are detracted from by the needlessly intrusive writings of her son and collaborator, Jake Dingman); and there is a series of unexceptional images of shoppers at Italian malls by Andrew Z. Glickman. But the Ewing show also features several photographers who have managed to breathe new life into the old cityscape.

Regina DeLuise, for instance, makes platinum prints that offer a richly chiaroscuroed view of Cortona. In photographs that could easily pass for vintage ’30s prints, DeLuise uses available (usually low) light to capture simple, timeless forms. Some are interiors: a bench draped with lush fabric; a harmonious arrangement of a window, wall, and chairs; a dark interior pierced by intense light from a small window. The photographer’s most impressive works, however, are her city views, in which, paradoxically, the city is barely visible.

In 2002’s Piazza Repubblica Under Hanging Lights, DeLuise focuses on a detailed arrangement of lights presumably hung to illuminate a street festival at night. The pattern, approximating a bar graph, is mesmerizing. And the picture invokes not only a mood but also an immediately recognizable vernacular of street-festival imagery. Rather remarkably, this stab at synecdoche enables DeLuise to communicate the essence of a 2,000-year-old city center without showing any buildings to speak of.

Night also figures prominently in the work of Frank Van Riper and Judith Goodman, a Washington-based husband and wife who have spent six years in an exacting quest to photograph Venice. (Full disclosure: The pair photographed my wedding.) Their stated goal is to document their beloved city at its darkest, coldest, and emptiest—and thus purest. Using available light and long exposures, they produce large-scale, inky-black prints that are technically impressive. All the expected highlights are there—the Piazza San Marco, the Grand Canal, the gondolas—but rather than the profusion of color that one expects in the depiction of this overphotographed city, the prints proffer a moody, noirish feel, imparting the precise opposite of Venice on a hot summer’s day.

Over in Florence, Kate Freedberg takes precisely the opposite approach. Rather than excising sightseers, she makes them the centerpiece of her sunny views of the city. It’s a risky approach: A number of her images that feature tourist kitsch look like little more than polished versions of an amateur’s snapshot. And her sole wide-angle view of the city’s rooftops, taken from the top of the Duomo, is gorgeous for reasons having less to do with her stylistic choices than with the city’s bottomless charm.

But there’s something else that makes Freedberg’s work compelling: the decision she made to surreptitiously record the sounds of tour groups as they walked around the city and its museums. The recordings—available for listening on headsets in the gallery—surround the viewer with an overlapping, multilingual dialogue that transports the visitor out of the gallery with surprising effectiveness. (Had it been a one-woman show, piping the sound directly into the gallery would have made the effect even more convincing.) By combining vision and sound, Freedberg’s project is remarkably effective at recalling a city’s ambient environment.

Perhaps it was not Freedberg’s intention to save the cityscape from irrelevance. But of all the photographers at Ewing and Roberts, she has found the most elegant means of doing so. And in the process, she has demonstrated the truism that, in photography as in other arts, breaking new ground involves expanding beyond the medium’s traditional boundaries.CP