Emma Arnold: Photography, composition, and the ephemeral city

Published in the Royal Geographical Society journal Area

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Emma Arnold


Photography is ultimately concerned with the ephemeral – with capturing and preserving transient moments. As a place in constant flux, full of ephemera and the ephemeral, the city has long been an important site for photographers. Those who study the city are increasingly incorporating photography into their research thanks to changing and more accessible technologies and epistemological shifts across the social sciences. Photographs are taking on new roles and are not only adjuncts or images that serve to illustrate or support text; they are integral to varied methodologies that centre the creation of images, from participatory methods using photo-voice to visual urban ethnographies. This paper considers how a move from illustrative and documentary style to more creative and evocative photography is changing the ways geographers compose images. Geographers are not just taking images but making them, involving themselves in a form of hybrid geographic and artistic practice. This shift involves a move from more objective to subjective framings and, in some cases, from more passive to active techniques. Taking graffiti photography as a departure, this paper explores how a hybrid geographic and artistic approach influences the composition and aesthetic qualities of images. The paper takes the reader through five compositions emerging from a study on the politics of graffiti in Norway: 1. Documentation; 2. Obstruction; 3. Abstraction; 4. Reflection; and 5. Negation. These compositions are useful in understanding the place of graffiti, one of the most contested and quintessentially ephemeral features of the urban landscape. This analysis demonstrates how a divergence from more typical representations is important in conducting critical urban photographic research, how an artistic eye is about the analytic as well as the aesthetic.

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Published Aug. 12, 2021 10:48 AM - Last modified Aug. 12, 2021 10:53 AM