Blue Earth
Glazer's Camera

Click and Mortar: The Urban Landscape

The Brooklyn Bridge emerges slowly from a very rare fog bank over New York's East River. The Brooklyn Bridge emerges slowly from a very rare fog bank over New York's East River.
Joseph Sohm/Corbis

To the trained eye, the sprawl of a city can have beauty all its own, if you know where to look.

"A place in which man has irrevocably altered the environment, and in which his works and legacy dominate."

This is the definition of "urban landscape" to Mesa, Ariz., photographer Kerrick James, who shoots nature predominantly. When cities are his subjects, his images are usually composed with one-half to three-quarters of the frame in a natural setting and the remainder focused on manmade structures.

As a general representation of the world's urban-to-rural ratio, however, James' preferred photographic balance is a bit off, according to a sobering United Nations population study. Between 2000 and 2030, the report predicts, the portion of the world's population living in cities will rise from its current 47 percent to more than 60 percent, or three out of every five humans.

With urbanites expected to become the majority for the first time in recorded history sometime in this decade, there is little doubt that the expanding footprint of the urban world has become its own type of landscape. For many people, the rise of the city is considered an irrevocable blight on the land. To the trained photographic eye, however, these "cityscapes" have a unique beauty all their own, if you know where to look.

Richard Cummins, an Ireland-born photographer now living in Southern California, says he doesn't see much difference between natural and urban landscapes. "I treat them identically," he says. "It's just buildings instead of trees." 

Since his early years in Ireland, where he worked as a lighthouse keeper, Cummins has developed his photography hobby into a profession using the Amphoto series as a primer. In the five years that he has been a full-time photographer, he has built a stock collection - from towering autumn aspen forests to huddled city high-rises - showing an innate talent for capturing high-impact images with the intense color of fine art. "But I don't look at my urban shots as art," Cummins explains. "I see them simply as photos."

"Once you've gotten to your location, whether it's a green field or it's Hoboken, it all comes down to framing your shot in a tasteful way," says Joseph Sohm, an Ojai, Calif.-based photographer who has spent years scrambling over rooftops to capture the essence of the American city skyline.

Sohm says he tends to have one foot in the natural world and the other in an urban setting, but he definitely has his preferences. "Nature is certainly a lot more fun," he admits.

"When you're in a natural setting, it's immediately apparent whether man has left his mark on the environment," says Barrie Rokeach, who, as an aerial photographer, has a unique vantage point on the landscapes he records.

A professional Bay Area photographer for 20 years, Rokeach began shooting urban scenes from terra firma long before going aloft. As a pilot with commercial and instrument ratings for more than 30 years, his interest gradually expanded outward and upward. Most of Rokeach's stock photos and those with Getty Images are commercial in nature but, as his web site states, he shoots "virtually anything you can imagine from the air."

For James, it's simply instinctual to place a community in the environment from which it emerged. His panoramas of cities such as Reno, Nev., Denver and Phoenix, shot with predominant mountain backdrops, are exquisite examples. 

After earning a photography fine arts degree from Arizona State University in 1982, James got into urban photography to bring back the experience of growing up in San Francisco, when he despised cities and loved nature. "I [now] look for moments of beauty in the urban landscapes I shoot," he says. 

The reality is that cities are just like humans. Even Sophia Loren has her good side and her bad side.
— Joseph Sohm

As an editorial photographer specializing in travel publications, James photographs the urban landscape as part of the story, as the lay of the land where people live. Citing Eugene Atget's early 20th-century work in Paris, he says, "I find that a great overview of a city has a timeless aspect, as both a document of the buildings and a mood of the time."

James sees cities as marks on the land and says it would be fascinating to do a century-long time lapse of a landscape, a frame every month, watching the scene develop as cities grow out of the earth. "Skylines are a visible manifestation of human will, while mountains are the result of tectonics," he says. "Skylines of both types are ever in flux. Only the timelines differ." Getting the best shot

The ephemeral nature of city skylines is the main fuel for the urban landscape industry. "There's always room for new [images] because cities continue to change," James says. "Old work becomes a historic document."

The loss of the World Trade Center towers, Sohm says, is a particularly dramatic and shocking example of this change. Because they dominated the lower Manhattan skyline for nearly 30 years, their sudden loss is still aesthetically palpable. "Looking at downtown from New Jersey, it now looks like it could be any other city," he says. "To get the real iconic shots of New York, you now have to go up to Midtown to get the Empire State, the Chrysler Building or the U.N. The standard identifiers have changed."   With 60 cover shots to his credit, James tends to think editorially when shooting. "I've always looked at images vertical first, horizontal second," he says. Aspiring urban landscape photographers should note that the wide cityscape shot also works well inside a publication. Panoramic skylines are necessary as a perspective, so get at least one in every city shoot, he advises.

For his trademark panoramas, Sohm likes to divide his frame into thirds: water, city, sky. "There's usually some kind of waterfront in most cities, and you can walk right up to it to get it in the foreground to give you some nice reflections," he says."Like they say in real estate, it's location, location, location," Sohm adds. "After that, for urban photography, it's lighting, lighting, lighting. Dusk is a good time. About 20 minutes after the sun goes down, you get that great afterglow effect. The city is becoming a silhouette, but you still get a lot of detail."At each shoot, he will spend much of the day scouting the city, looking for the sunrise or sunset angles. A sturdy perch for his tripod is another requisite, especially with the evening shots he prefers. During long exposures, it is sometimes a difficult task to find a spot that is free of vibrations from the many cars, trucks and trains rumbling through city streets.

"You also have to be incredibly careful about jets flying over," he adds. "In almost every cityscape, you have either a jet flying over or a boat moving in the water. You can try to limit these things, but [they're] almost impossible to avoid."

To find new shots, Cummins says, you have to go beyond the obvious and look harder for details. "I usually spend only a week in a city, shoot like crazy, and leave before it gets boring," he says. "A city is all new at first; then you begin to ignore details after a while."

One advantage of shooting cityscapes, Sohm says, is they are not affected much by seasonal changes. He prefers shooting in winter, when city pollution is more dissipated and the air is crisp and less humid. "As long as there's no snow and you're careful about not getting a lot of trees in the frame, you can shoot a city in the winter or summer and not really tell much difference." 

Rough 'n' ready equipment

With all the required travel to often grimy urban settings, many cityscape photographers put a premium on the ruggedness and simplicity of their camera gear.  

When walking all day with a backpack full of equipment, Cummins prefers the lightweight 35mm Canon. He used his original camera for several years and says he's still slow to change because familiarity with the equipment is essential to shooting rapidly when scene and light conditions are optimal.

For those interested in nighttime images, the largely self-taught Sohm recommends using a magenta filter to counteract the green hue caused by the fluorescent lighting of city buildings. He likes to use a Fuji 617 panoramic or a Canon 35mm film camera, but a change may be in the air. "Right now, I'm becoming a minimalist," Sohm says. "I'm on the verge of dropping film altogether and going totally digital."

James, however, remains a holdout. He still shoots about 99 percent of his images on transparency film, in 35mm and 220 sizes, usually Fuji Velvia, Provia 400 and Kodak VS 100. "I simply love viewing large transparencies on the lightbox, and I expect I always will," he says. "Digital may creep into my kit for certain tight deadline work, but because of where I go and how I work, film simply performs better for me."

Along with the popular panoramic cameras like the Fuji 617 and the Hasselblad Xpan, James likes to use Pentax systems. "I am one of the few pros using Pentax 35mms, but have had wonderful results with their optics for 25 years," he says. "My mind-set is to use the larger formats whenever possible, reserving 35mm for fast-moving situations like sports or street work."
In Rokeach's aerial acrobatics, he also uses a 35mm camera and takes along as many as eight lenses. Lenses wider than 28mm are difficult to position without getting plane parts in the shot, he says, and those 400mm or larger are unwieldy, as it is hard to dampen the plane's vibrations. 

Cummins also buys midrange rather than professional models. "I can afford to damage and replace less-expensive equipment," he explains, adding that it's the picture that counts, not what takes it. "You don't need a million-dollar camera to get good shots."

Market adjustments

Like many freelance shooters, Sohm says today's economics have forced him to become a stock photographer exclusively. "Up until the last three years, about 20 to 30 percent [of my work] was through direct calls," he says. Since the large Internet stock agencies took control of much of the market, the number of photo assignments has plummeted. 

In addition, the travel and tourism industry, one of the largest clients for urban landscape photography, is currently facing the triple-whammy of the post-Sept. 11, 2001, economic slump, the war in Iraq and the recent outbreak of the mysterious SARS virus. Despite the economy and the advent of what he calls the "Corbis-Getty phenomenon," Sohm says the call for new urban images is still relatively healthy. A former high school American history teacher, Sohm travels the country in his RV these days, working on an ongoing project called "Visions of America," a multimedia stock photography catalog covering all aspects of American life. 

The cityscape, he says, is a genre that can withstand a lot of repetition. "The reality is that cities are just like humans," he explains. "Even Sophia Loren has her good side and her bad side. With cities, it's the same thing, only the good sides are pretty obvious, so you see a lot of the same angles."

James says it's easy to stay in well-trodden ruts and O.K. to use tried-and-true techniques, but one should go beyond to capture a personal essence of urban territory. "Clients want the beauty and excitement of the city," he says. "Developers are big customers, as they always need current, strong pictures to define a locale."

Single subjects are prominent in Cummins' work. Neon signs, flags and statuary are striking iconic metaphors. "Clients want these; they show a city best and they're easier to shoot, particularly on cloudy days when you can't get the big scenes," he explains.Though his prints have been exhibited in Rockefeller Center, Cummins has never been to New York, preferring smaller, lesser-known towns. He says many photographers overlook their own hometowns and advises starting there before branching out. "You don't have to be a world traveler to be successful," he says. "You can shoot the same building all day and get many different looks from a single structure."

Despite the slumping market, Cummins says his photography income has doubled every year. "I have to turn away jobs, and my sales are going through the roof," he adds. He returns to Ireland for a month each year to do work for his stock agency and also publishes calendars with Irish scenes.

An environmentalist, Rokeach sometimes shoots for a political message and often finds client organizations that support this cause. "Many of my images make a philosophical or political statement," he explains, noting pictures of urban sprawl, smog, clear-cutting and commercial damage to the landscape.

While new security cautions since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., have hampered nearly all urban photographers, perhaps none were more affected than aerial shooters such as Rokeach. Temporary flyover bans in some cities caused him to alter some of his flight activity. Today he maintains much closer communication with air traffic control, particularly when circling a site for any length of time. "I'm worried that they will be worried," he says.

The continued emphasis on homeland security in the last two years makes it difficult to photograph some government structures, cautions Cummins, who advises asking permission first if there might be a problem. He learned this the hard way when shooting an interesting building in Turkey one night. He suddenly found himself surrounded by nervous armed guards, and only then realized that his subject was their local jail. 

Good skyline shots, difficult even under ideal circumstances, are now "three times harder to get" since 9/11, Sohm agrees. "You can't help but look suspicious lingering in one spot, gazing intently at tall buildings," he says. "You can be sure that the police will be there within minutes asking you questions."

Mean streets

Urban photography has its share of rewards, but it can also come with pesky parking tickets, equipment theft or, worst of all, touchy police officers.

While, most of the time, Sohm has been able to charm his way through sticky situations, run-ins with the law are simply a fact of life for the veteran urban photographer, he says, even before today's heightened security measures. "I've been thrown in jail before," he says. Several years before 9/11, he says, while shooting the Philadelphia skyline from atop a concrete block on the Ben Franklin Bridge, "some plainclothes cops came and arrested me on the spot." 

Those aspiring to do cityscapes should "prepare to be hassled," Sohm warns. "A lot of it is not about shooting. It's about getting liability insurance - and you will need it, let me assure you. It's about how you talk to people to convince them that you're not a terrorist, you just want to set up your camera for a few minutes."

One of James' best-sellers had the greatest degree of technical difficulty he has encountered. The quest was for an iconic shot of a cable car cresting San Francisco's Nob Hill at sunrise with a commuter swinging aboard. Shooting from more than half a mile away with the Bay Bridge as the backdrop, he needed early morning light before fog enveloped the scene. It took nine consecutive days to capture only two usable transparencies, but the result has appeared on several magazine and book covers and in numerous ads, netting him more than $50,000 to date.

As an aerial photographer, Rokeach flies above many of these hassles. Still, he and his colleagues have their own list of obvious challenges, such as FAA regulations, motion, atmospheric conditions, air traffic and other stuff you might crash into. Though he generally discourages pilots from taking their eyes off the horizon to look through a camera while in flight, Rokeach flies alone while taking photos. "It requires a lot of experience to fly and shoot at the same time," he warns. "When I do it, I increase all my other senses and can feel, hear and even smell what the plane is doing."

The money shot

Headaches aside, every urban landscape shooter still yearns for that perfect shot under incredible circumstances - the shot that makes the whole ordeal worthwhile.  Some of Sohm's favorite urban images have come from a west-facing view of lower Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge. "It was one of those rare times when there was a morning fog over the city, and it lifted up from the top, slowly revealing the buildings," he says. "I had only seen that happen before in San Francisco."

Asked about his ultimate high, James refers to his unique wide-angle view of San Francisco from the south tower of the Golden Gate Bridge, shot on assignment for United Airlines. 

He first had to penetrate bureaucratic fiefdoms for permission to get atop the bridge. Ascending via elevator and enclosed narrow ladder in what "was like a mineshaft in the sky" and "popping the hatch on a submarine to emerge into bright sunlight," he reached the apex. It cost $90 an hour for the requisite security guard who accompanied him to this perch nearly 750 feet above the water. Even more costly was the requirement to surrender some of his images to the bridge authority in exchange for the rare lookout.

When operating in such crowded areas, Sohm says, the possibilities for confrontations with uncooperative people can be nearly endless. "You're always going under fences on other people's property, you have to get permission to climb on someone's rooftop, there's a German shepherd barking at you the whole time," he laments. "I've done well with cityscapes, but most photographers I know don't want to deal with it. It's like going to the dentist."

Other photographers see it differently. While most people see only the muddled disorder of a city, Cummins says he slows down to note detail. "I see the scene, not the clutter. Pictures just seem to work in front of me."

With its myriad challenges of choosing a scene, seeking the right light, waiting for people to be in or out of shots and keeping an eye on $30,000 worth of gear, James says shooting an urban landscape is like setting a stage. "I try to show the city in a way it hasn't been seen," he says. "I want to make it beautiful and meaningful."

What's next on James' horizon? His fanciful dream is to shoot from space. "I would love to do the first landscape on Mars," he muses.

Randy Woods
Story Author: Randy Woods

Randy Woods, editor of PhotoMedia, has been in the magazine publishing world for more than 20 years, covering such varied topics as photography, insurance, business startups, environmental issues and newspaper publishing. He is also associate editor for iSixSigma magazine and writes a job—search blog for The Seattle Times called “Hire Ground.”

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