The Online Photographer

Check out our new site at!

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

City Photographers

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991), Greyhound Bus Terminal, Federal Arts Project, "Changing New York," July 14, 1936

It's always seemed odd to me that cities don't have photographers. The White House has an official photographer; so do football teams and opera companies; why doesn't Chicago? Is Phoenix too bland, Atlanta eternal and unchanging, Portland, Maine uninterested in what Portland, Oregon looks like? Cities have official coffee-suppliers, inkwell-fillers, pothole-fixers, numberless keepers of records and documents less worthy than what the place look like when. Any elightened city should have at least one full-time photographer out in it day after day recording the comings and goings, the tearing down and the building up, the passage of life and the comings and goings of the people, the look of the place in the rain and the winter and at night and in times of celebration and crisis and boredom. Any parent does as much for the changing aspect of a single child, as it grows and changes forever. Any city is forever disappearing. Why not notice?



Anonymous Anonymous said...

They often do. I suspect that nearly all major cities in the U.S. has one or more full-time photographers somewhere on the payroll at any given time. Unfortunately, but hardly surprisingly, they are generally tasked toward political and public relations coverage rather than documentation of their urban landscapes. (I've met at least two photographers who work at least part time for the City of Chicago at various events.)

There have been some notable, albeit brief, exceptions to city photographers' tasking at least here in Chicago. In the early 1960's, for example, the late photographer Art Sinsabaugh ( presented Chicago with a proposal to photograph the city in the throes of its various transitions. Around 1963 his proposal was finally accepted and he captured some remarkable images with his large-format camera. But I strongly suspect that the real motivations for approving Sinsabaugh's project lay in documenting and promoting the (then) Mayor Richard J. Daley's "Model Cities Project" during which much of the city's expressways and public housing projects were built. When Sinsabaugh's project was "completed" his duties were no longer needed.

Chicago, (I think) Boston, New York, and Los Angeles all have urban planning departments that generally maintain historical (and nearly never seen) photographic archives. I doubt that many of these images represent works of art but I'd bet that you could gain access to view them with a year or two of bureaucratic red tape cutting.

Here in Chicago the Chicago History Museum (formerly the Chicago Historical Society) has a very large collection of photography of the Chicago area. (

12:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i totally agree! somebody give me *that* job.

4:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I grew up in Chicago and lived there until I was 26, then moved to Worcester, Massachusetts in 1998. Though I immediately liked Worcester, it made me realize how much I loved Chicago. I then gave myself the project of trying to document Worcester through the art of photography by posting one new picture a day on my website. It forces me to keep an open eye to the places that most people take for granted--the things that are most familiar to us and are often overlooked. Your post today really resonated with me, since two days ago I "discovered" an area of Worcester that feels on the verge of some major changes, and it would be a shame to have the old buildings and shops lost to fading memories. I hope to go out and do something about that problem soon.

7:02 AM  
Blogger Albano Garcia said...

Excellent post, Mike, as usual. I, before "death by waiting", decided to start it by myself, as an amateur that I'm. My interest is in disappearing structures and oddities. You can see them at

8:13 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Actually, I check often.


8:47 AM  
Blogger Stephen Cysewski said...

I have been documenting Fairbanks Alaska for awhile. Whenever I visit a location I love to just go out and wander. I also have web sites on Nome Alaska and Anchorage Alaska. Check out

9:42 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

May I say how pleased I am that you are back online. And how much I look forward to reading more ruminations.

9:55 AM  
Blogger Bruce Ford said...

I have been the City Photographer in Akron, Ohio for 27 years and I still enjoy my work and all the wonderful people I meet. Its not always exiting but its always interesting and digital technology has been a tremendous asset .

11:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've known a couple of city photographers, both are now layed off. Victims all of cost cutting. But as another post said, they mostly followed ther mayor around doing grip and grins.


11:02 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Thank you Michael. Come back any time, and please tell your friends.


12:50 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

My opinion of Akron just went way up. Are you charged with doing any independent documentary or do you do mostly assignment work for city officials?


4:18 PM  
Blogger Bruce Ford said...

I work out of the Mayor's Office (Don Plusquellic) but I provide photographic and graphic services to all city departments.
PS: Please excuse my incorrect spelling of exciting.

6:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My sister-in-law is the chief photographer for the City of Cologne (Germany) Historic Preservation Department. No grip & grins. Her old high school, a 50s classic, came up for potential "historic" designation recently, and of course it was her job to shoot the photos that would be used in making the decision. She confessed the urge to shoot it badly.... -WS

7:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I read cities should have their photographers, I thought, "yess", and next, "hey..that's me." Nominally I am a photographer of the world, but for most of the last twenty plus years my immediate world has been Tokyo. I am not the only one working on this place, from Araki to who knows who.

All the great cities have had their photographers, with Paris and New York, in particular, represented by so many iconic images. With the rate of change in Tokyo, documenting it is a perpetual work-in-progress.

There is a kind of casual attitude to the environment, and history in Japan. The city I moved to has, for all practical purposes, disappeared. Someday when Japan has completed its headlong rush away from the past, all those images of a lost world may finally be valued.

If I am feeling in the mood for some self-flagellation I only have to think of all the cities I saw and did not document in any thorough way at the time. Too late, I realized that what I had casually walked through was lost forever sooner than I could have believed: Tokyo in my early years, Shanghai in 1984, East Berlin in 1980, and so on.

6:23 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home