For the love of photojournalism.

Words & Photos By: Anthony Greenberg

It’s easy to be jaded about the ubiquity of cell phones in our modern lives. As the last cohort of a generation that remembers what life was like before the prominence of cell phones, my friends and I often have those conversations about how we need to focus on simplifying our lives, lightening our dependence on Google and Shazam, and trying to live life for the moment.

However, all this aside, I have come to love the smart phone, for it has helped me better develop my professional point of view.

I started my Tumblr, The Space Between Buildings, about two years ago. I learned about Tumblr from a friend who had one and was inspired by a colleague of mine who posted photos of the city around her on her Facebook page. I didn’t have any lofty intentions when I began the blog… but it’s simple platform for loading whatever sort of media I wanted made it an easy – and addictive — way to capture my favorite things.

I had been taking photos of buildings and cityscapes far before I started my Tumblr, but as soon as I had it as the accessible platform, I began to get inspired by more and more around me. I have a few friends who are artists and photographers and followed their beautiful blogs. They had fancy cameras and were able to take photos of ordinary things and make them look exquisite. When I first started to post photos I was self-conscious about the grainy, dimly lit photos my blackberry camera produced. However, when I started having these doubts, I thought about a panel discussion I had seen Patti Smith participate in once in Montreal.

It was part of a talk put on by McGill University as part of Pop Montreal. I forget exactly the overarching purpose the event, but the topic of modern media and the music industry arose. I think the question to Smith was initially positioned in the context of MP3s and music piracy, but Smith was quick to turn the question around, and speak about how one aspect of the modern way people experience music – cell phone videotaping at concerts– was to her liking. She spoke of how she’d always had a distaste for concert videos, as the pristine production was so counter to the raw raucousness that is fundamental to a rock concert. You can’t capture that with a mastered audio track and perfect panning video. Smith stated how when she first saw clips of concerts recorded on cellphones and loaded to YouTube, this was the first time she thought a form of media properly captured the energy of a rock concert. The distorted sound, the shaking camera – this was the closest you can get to capturing the true essence of a rock show.

I like to think my moderate quality Blackberry photos capture my ordinary urban environment with this same appropriateness. I’ve always been attracted to the ordinary urban environment. To capture a row of ordinary old town homes with a fancy filter and perfect focus wouldn’t be appropriate. The objective  of my Tumblr isn’t to produce beautiful images – as I don’t think good cities are always beautiful. My objective is to inventory the built form around me that seems to “work” for me.

By “work,” I do not mean urban areas that follow textbook urban design rules. To me, an urban environment that “works” is one that is unique and diverse, one that tells a story, one that is contributing to the experience of  place.

As a planner (who deals mostly with policy as opposed to urban designers who actually design urban environments), I am not expected to have a thoroughly technical understanding of design. However, it is absolutely necessary that I have a certain literacy in it. While I never have been of the understanding the design alone makes great cities, the built environment is without a doubt one of the most singular important aspects.

I am less interested in gaining a formal education in urban design, as from going to planning school and working with designers on a daily basis, I feel I have a good understanding of the contemporary urban design paradigm’s tenets already. What I am more interested in is developing a better understanding of my personal point of view in terms of urban design. Architecture and design are visual pursuits, and rather than speaking to what I like about something around me, I feel it makes most sense to take a photo. Further, by visually inventorying points of view around me, I am able to recognize visual patterns of what stimulates me: luscious plantings against red brick, old store signs, buildings built to the front lot line, poured concrete against clear glass, finely paned windows, distressed brick. These are mostly things new development cannot mimic. But this all gives me an idea of “what works.”

My Tumblr has become an important part of my developing professional self.  Perhaps more importantly, I have learned that it has also inspired others to look at the urban world around them. Over the span of my Tumblr life, I have received a few messages from followers of mine. One simply told me “I really enjoy being a voyeur into your urban world” while another follower told me that he –a law student—has begun to look at buildings and the cities around him differently after following my site. I began to follow his Tumblr after this and I am thrilled to now and then see a cell phone shot of the top of a building or the negative space between buildings outside his office window.

We all experience the urban environment and the design of the public realm is for everyone. By being aware of what we like, what we don’t like, and as a result, how to verbalize and identify what these things are, we can participate in forms of engagement with ourselves, our city, and others. This is integral to creating great cities for everyone. Tumblr is a great format for me with which to do so… what about you?

Anthony is a young urban planner in Toronto. See what inspires him by visiting his Tumblr

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Categories: Features, Urbanism

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  1. For the love of Photojournalism: A Young Urban Planner’s Take on Professional Development & Social Media – Urban Times - July 13, 2012

    […] Anthony is a young urban planner in Toronto. See what inspires him by visiting his Tumblr.   This post originally appeared as a feature on The Gaze magazine. […]

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