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Visualising the City - Personal Highlights

The international symposium Visualising the City took place at Manchester University from Sunday 26 to Tuesday 28 June, 2005. It brought together a large number of people involved in academic research and teaching, as well as practitioners in film, photography, art and other visual media. Delegates came from many parts of the UK and overseas, including many from the United States.

I found out about the symposium when I saw a poster advertising it on Oxford Road Manchester. I decided to sign up for it because 'visualising the city' is what I do every day, and I wanted to see alternative perspectives, as well networking with like-minded others. I wasn't disappointed. Here are my personal highlights.

The venue was the Martin Harris Centre for Music and Drama on the main Manchester University campus on Oxford Road. For the opening address, delegates gathered in the magnificent Rodewall Concert Hall with its twinkling ceiling lights. After an introduction by Alan Marcus, chair of the organising committee, Giuliana Bruno of Harvard University gave a thought-provoking account on the development of visual media into cinematography. Dietrich Neumann of Brown University gave new insights into Fritz Lang's Metropolis, and other films, referring to maps of Berlin.

For my first panel I chose 'The Painted City'. Sandra Martin, Curator of Fine Arts, Manchester Art Gallery, gave a fascinating talk on Adolphe Valette, the French painter who lived taught and painted in Manchester in the early decades of the 20th century. She referred Valette's paintings projected on screen, and noted his influence on LS Lowry.

On the same panel Joshua Shannon spoke about the artist Robert Rauschenberg, whose puzzling assemblages of found objects arose from his reactions to the transformation of New York in the early sixties. As Joshua remarked when I chatted to him after the talk, this was a time when there were conflicting concepts about how New York should develop, a conflict parallelled in Manchester today.

Later delegates went half a mile up Oxford Road to the Cornerhouse to see Hell is a City (1960, directed by Val Guest). Steve Chibnall of De Montfort University Leicester, whose specialist area is the history of British cinema, talked about the background to the film. I had seen the film several times already but I enjoyed more than ever this time, thanks to the context, and the excellent quality print in beautiful black and white Hammerscope. (For some reason the reels weren't shown in the correct order!)

On Monday plenary speaker Tony Kaes of Berkeley University gave a paper entitled Babel in Metropolis, showing excepts from the legendary film and highlighting aspects of its symbolism. Mark Shiel of King's College talked about how Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni portrayed cities, commenting on excerpts from Cronaca di un amore (1950) and Zabriskie Point (1969).

Berlin is a special interest of mine and so I went to the Berlin by Lens panel. Sabine Hake, Andrew Webber, Miriam Paeslack and Monica Riera all gave interesting perspectives on this subject.

In the afternoon panel Immoral Tales I was intrigued by William Straw's research into changing cover designs of the True Crime Magazine. Alan Marcus spoke about Leni Riefenstahl, showing excerpts of her films made in Nazi Germany. Steve Chibnall looked at the subject of urban anxieties in British crime films, sadly not Hell is a City. It would have been great to see an in depth analysis of the film as part of the symposium.

At 6pm delegates gathered at Urbis for an interesting presentation by creative director Scott Burnham. I had to make a swift exit as I was giving a presentation myself at South Manchester Camera Club in Didsbury.

On Tuesday I was magnetically drawn to the panel Photographing the Urban Street, and was very glad I went. Mary Woods gave a vivid account of Walker Evans's photographs taken in Cuba during the 1930s. Photographic practitioner Andrea Frank presented her candid photos taken on the streets and subway trains of New York, many shot literally from the hip. She read aloud US government resolutions on national security as the photos were screened in rapid succession.

My most important discovery during the symposium was the photography of Berenice Abbott. I had already come across a few of her photographs but I was fascinated when I heard the sharp and perceptive presentation by Meredith TeGrotenhuis, which had an unexpected twist. Berenice Abbott photographed the old New York, which in the 1930s was about to disappear. Her photos highlight the decrepitude and the beauty of these older buildings, now relics of a bygone age. But far from being a plea to preserve them, her photogaphs provided evidence of the necessity for them to be swept away and replaced by the new. I hadn't realised a photographer of the old could be an apologist for the new, and I hadn't realised just how excellent Berenice Abbott's photos are. Her photos are highly relevant to what I'm doing in Manchester now, I will be studying her pictures in detail.

Due to other commitments I was unable to attend Sandra Martin's drop-in talk at Manchester City Art Gallery, but as I'm fortunate to live in Manchester, I'll be returning to the gallery another day.

In the afternoon I went to the panel City as Spectacle, and especially enjoyed the spooky monochrome photos of architect Tim Wray in his presentation 'Ghosts Invoked in the Camera Lens'. He manages to make not just Berlin's Sanssouci palaces but also Potsdamer Platz look ghostly. Mavis Nwokobia, PhD student at Manchester University, gave a remarkable presentation on the paintings of Lawrence Alma Tadema, showing excerpts from Gladiator and Ben Hur. His paintings of Roman cities were used as source materials for the set designs of both these films. The paintings of Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema were immensely popular in the late Victorian era, though they fell out of favour in the early 20th century. Today they can be admired at municipal art galleries in Manchester, Birmingham and other cities. I was intrigued to hear about how the death of his wife and only child, which took place in 1863 - the year he first visited Pompeii - may have influenced and motivated his work.

After the panel I chatted to Tim Wray, whose main activity is architecture,. I'd love to see more of his photographs, perhaps online or in an exhibition. I also bought two of the official conference T Shirts (£7 each).

As the end of the symposium drew near, I caught the latter part of the panel Filming Through the Cracks, with presentations by Celine Gailleurd and Elvin Aydogdu.

At 4.45. We returned to the magnificent Rodewall concert hall where Alan Marcus brought the symposium to a close and was deservedly given a big round of applause by delegates. Socialising continued in Albert Square, though I had to leave due to prior commitments.

Visualising the City was a very enjoyable and productive experience and provided me with many new insights as well pointers to further study. I gained a few new contacts too. My only gripe was the superb weather on all three days of the symposium - I wish I could have been out in it taking photographs, but events like this don't happen every day.

More info at www.manchester.ac.uk/visualisingthecity.

Written by Aidan O'Rourke
Posted/Updated 2005-06-30

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