Urban Tomographies

Like a CAT scan of an organ, urban tomography documents metropolitan life by sampling and compiling multiple slices of a city. Using photography and audio recording, urban planning expert Martin H. Krieger scans contemporary Los Angeles to illuminate different aspects of a community, from work to worship.

Urban Tomographies

Martin H. Krieger

2011 | 152 pages | Cloth $49.95
Social Science | General
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Chapter 1. Introduction
Chapter 2. Cities, Streetscapes, and the Second Industrial Revolution
Chapter 3. Choreographies of Work
Chapter 4. System and Network, Node and Link
Chapter 5. Storefront Houses of Worship
Chapter 6. The Urban Aural Sensorium
Chapter 7. Finding Out Where We Are


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


Urban tomography, as in medical tomography, makes many images (or videos or aural recordings) of a place or phenomenon from a diverse set of perspectives, allowing one to imagine a whole through its aspects: eight hundred images of the facades of storefront houses of worship (mostly churches) to appreciate religiosity in a city; hundreds of images of the streets of a city before and after renewal (as Charles Marville made photographs of Paris, 1858-77) to appreciate how the city was and how it had been changed; all the electrical stations of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (about 150); hundreds of images of working people (as did August Sander, in Weimar Germany) to give concreteness to a population; and thousands of images of people at work at more than two hundred industrial sites in Los Angeles; not to speak of streetscapes, extensive neighborhood surveys, and many sound recordings. Urban tomography is about multiple aspects or slices of a presumed whole, ordinary or typical images or sound recordings. Moreover, we appreciate that whole from those concrete aspectival images. We shall say, technically, there is "an identity (a place, an object, a phenomenon) in a manifold presentation of profiles."

In contrast, there is a tradition that claims that an image or a painting might be a provision of the whole world, the world as a whole. Most visual documentation is provided through such exemplary and extraordinary images, whether in photojournalism or in documentary photography. That tradition would say that images taken as profiles are merely fragmentary. Urban tomography would say that only after we have understood a notion through many examples, only after we have understood an identity through a manifold presentation of profiles, can such an individual image be a provision of the world.

Now, the world is more productive and varied and surprising than is our imagination; its this-ness or particularity or facticity exceeds its genericity, the actual concreteness more productive than ideas or thoughts. There is always more, more than you could intend. So you want to get closer to see better, or get more distant to gain perspective, or survey more widely to avoid lacunae, or enlarge the image to recover further details. But always some things are unavailable, occluded, missed, or not resolved.

The hard part of urban tomography is actually doing the documentation, going out and looking, cataloging and archiving, persisting in finding new aspects, and knowing when you have enough or more than enough so that the whole may be discerned. The institutions and phenomena are ubiquitous. Often they are spatially agglomerated, at street corners or in districts or neighborhoods, not by chance but for good reasons (zoning, economy), or arranged schematically as in a network, again for good reasons such as efficiency. We might learn about the institutions or phenomena, perhaps as a system, from how they present themselves on the street or when we just walk inside or close up.

My exemplary cities will be Paris, chosen for its rich history of such urban tomography, and Los Angeles, where I live and work, providing examples of current work in this vein. A city is an archive of its past. It provides for more than enough slices or aspects so that we might see it more comprehensively, as an identity, as a whole.

This is not a photography book or a picture book. An introduction that explores the phenomenology of urban tomography is followed by four chapters drawing from what I observed and documented and came to understand on specific urban themes: streets and what you might see there; work and commerce; infrastructure; and worship. These topics are central to writing about cities. In each case my fieldwork and urban tomography enabled me to articulate the concrete whole from many aspectival images. In particular, I describe the substantive culture or economy that is displayed in those images. Chapter 6 shows how one might use aural recording to do urban tomography. Chapter 7 brings together theoretical and philosophical considerations about how urban tomography works in practice.

I have documented public and private Los Angeles, what you can see from and on the street and what is behind closed doors, the profane and the sacred. I am interested in commerce and merchandising, health services and real estate, industrial and especially manufacturing work sites as well as people at work at those sites, and utilities and ports and rail yards and warehouses. Public life includes conversations heard out loud, life on the bus and transit, and people gathering together to eat. As for the streets, there one finds background aural ambience, commercial and wholesale districts, neighborhoods, ethnic or religious enclaves, residential and industrial areas, traffic, and people changing buses and waiting for the next one. On those streets are thousands of places of worship, and some of the time I go inside as well. Infrastructure provides the nerve-ways and arteries that link it all together. There is as well quiet, and much can be heard below the noise. All of these topics are linked by systemic connections and by propinquity, so while studying one you bump into another.

The world is concrete and specific, not a set stage. Every detail matters as it is, and yet you will always miss something. What is everyday and ordinary allows you to not pay attention to lots more that is just as present. There is always more than you can take in, at one time or multiple times. You have to stick your snout into the world: you may use a wide-angle lens (whose horizontal angle of view is perhaps one and a half to two times that of a normal lens) or a widely sensitive surround microphone system (employing several differently facing microphones) to get closer yet not miss what is just nearby, on the side. And you have to be there, do the fieldwork, get closer or go around occlusions, make the documents; and then you have to systematically index and archive them, and review what you have gathered. From manifold overlapping and multiaspectival images or recordings, from a panoply that may include redocumentation of what was once documented decades earlier, from a cinematic montage of shots, from your initial notions now modified by that manifold—you figure out the whole that allows itself to be presented in these so many aspects, namely, what is going on, its choreography, what the phenomenological philosophers call an identity in a manifold presentation of profiles. Then each image may be seen to exemplify that whole, that identity. I want to make people stop and look and listen, recognizing what they have heretofore passed by, and see that as part of the whole, so that identity is now more encompassing, more accommodating, more adequate.

These chapters are reflections on a fieldwork picaresque and an obsessive search for phenomena, driven by what I have encountered in the field, in Los Angeles, latterly informed by scholarly literature in particular areas. The photographer Walker Evans (circa 1935) put it more directly: "[The] American city is what I'm after." As I say at the end of Chapter 4: Hyperbolically, there is an identity of the various identities in the manifold presentations of profiles. That identity is the city.

In the end it is the fieldwork and the documents that shape what I say. The theorizing here is driven by the desire to describe the world I encountered and recorded, and to account for my practice. The goal is to provide an archive that will be useful decades hence, in ways that I surely cannot fully anticipate.

Three provisos: First, I do not believe that any of the phenomena I discuss are specific to Los Angeles; that location is just where I have done most of my work. Second, "urban tomography" is meant to be a portmanteau term for the various practices that have relied on very large numbers of related images or documents to get at the world; everything I am doing has almost surely been done before by distinguished artists and social researchers, albeit under different auspices and sometimes less intensively. Third, while "tomography" is a technical term, you do not have to be an expert to read and appreciate multiple aspects, or slices, or tomograms. Tomography is the way we come to know the world ordinarily, every day.

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Most of the still photographs and the associated fieldwork date from 1999 to 2006: housing, commerce, and streets; then storefront houses of worship; then industrial streets; then inside industrial establishments; and then infrastructure. My work in video dates from about 2004, in aural surround-sound recording from about 2006, and in multiple video-smartphone urban tomography from 2007 and 2008.