Urban Realism

Martin U Waltz, The Reader

Feature image: Martin U Waltz, The Reader

Cultural Commentary: The Boldness and Intersectionality of Urban Realism

Urban art has always been an evolving ethos in the perception of cities because they’ve always symbolized change and promise in the United States. Artists in the early ages of cities depicted urban lifestyles as growth and progress, focusing on the magnificence of the larger landscape. These concrete jungles make everyday people feel like they can blend in and develop anonymity within the masses while sustaining themselves. As time passed, however, the scopes of these messages grew smaller and smaller, focusing on the thoughts, emotions, and inspirations behind the everyday individuals in these cities. Artists today still elevate the magnificence of the human feats that made these cities happen; however, more artists than ever highlight the importance of the people within the cities and their experiences rather than glorifying the presence of the city itself. 

Urban Painting - on the canvas

Our perception of cities changes over time. With this conceptual shift, artistic influences change too. Urban realism often reflects more than a city’s appearance; instead, it reflects our idealized versions. Their cityscapes and unfiltered angles of urban life allowed people with a space to be seen in a sea of concrete. However, while the skyscrapers stand firm along their horizons, their alleyways and concrete foundations tell stories of strength, resilience, and community. 

Julian Alden Weir, The Factory Village, 1897 via Fine Art America
Julian Alden Weir, The Factory Village, 1897 via Fine Art America

Historically, they used to relate to each other almost 1:1. They sought to capture the city's essence, often focusing on figures and scenes that reflected the hustle and bustle of urban existence. This became a trend to focus on people as a collective, from the masses walking down the street to the clusters of crowds crossing the street. However, a growing interest in walkable, eco-intertwined cityscapes is taking the genre by storm.

Urban painters often capture urban environments’ unique architecture and cityscapes. Their paintings focus most on what makes a city function everywhere, from the towering buildings to the transit infrastructure and even the potholes and cracked sidewalks. For example, Nina Boecht creates art out of subway tickets. Each ticket becomes a mosaic depicting different scenes, like landscapes, city plans, and street signs. However, each ticket represents one ride, one moment in her life, strengthening the connection between the magnificence of artificial progress and the individuals who make it possible. 

Roger Winter, Columbus Avenue, 2001
Roger Winter, Columbus Avenue, 2001 via Wikimedia

As the modern narrative of “city life” changes, interpretations of urban landscapes change. The once ”aesthetic” wear and tear of these densely populated powerhouses now appears dilapidated and separated from those living there. Today, urban painters may still practice realism, but their focus is elevating social commentary from the people's perspective. These include items commonly found/discarded/taken for granted, like subway tickets, concert flyers, etc. Using commonly discarded items from cities, these artists turn conversations on urban lifestyles upside down, focusing on who lives in the cities and who makes the communities.

Urban photography

Early urban photography focused on architecture; the people in them often speck in larger landscape shots. Urban photography's most prominent features include eye-catching geometry and the ability to balance natural light with the artificial landscape. However, as the environmentalism movement gained traction, there was a noticeable shift in what and how people photographed cities. People focused away from the stagnant cityscapes and on finding the candid, and city photography faded into street photography. This shift began to raise questions about what was important for urban photography—the city or the people.

Public transport share taxi in Maracaibo city, Zulia, Venezuela via Wikimedia
Public transport share taxi in Maracaibo city, Zulia, Venezuela via Wikimedia

Henri Cartier-Bresson was the photographer who coined the term "decisive moment." Decisive moments are fleeting points that reveal the essence of a situation. For example, a “decisive moment” might be when someone misses their train, their arms outstretched as the doors close. Bresson believed in the spontaneity of photography and stressed the importance of intuition and timing in capturing the perfect image. His decisive moments were so powerful at the time because he captured the human experience within a single frame: everything from tragedy, beauty, heartbreak, and community. Much like urban painters, he was inspired by surrealists and their ability to illuminate the complexities of everyday life. 

Street Photography street sellers Costa Rica 20 via Wikipedia
Street Photography street sellers Costa Rica 20 via Wikipedia

Urban Literature

While artists capture images of fleeting moments and the raw emotions of urban civilians, writers immortalize expression and experience through language. Many people living in the cities, especially in the 1900s, worked in factories to make ends meet. While Cartier-Bresson elevated specific moments that captured the existing lifestyle in the cities, writers like Upton Sinclair highlighted the lifestyles of factory workers in the meat industry, describing in grave detail their working process and conditions in grave detail. His story became a sensation, resulting in a worldwide push for policies and restrictions to increase safety and sanitation. Students worldwide read his book in classrooms over a century later, aligning with the worldwide urban realism movement that shaped how we approach discussing the Industrial Revolution today. The urban realism movement that sought to elevate the perspectives of urban citizens became a source of activism and advocacy. With works like these, how we talk about inequities within the workplace would look much the same as today. 

Ana Rosa, São Paulo Metro via Wikipedia
Ana Rosa, São Paulo Metro via Wikipedia

Large cities tend to feel depersonalized, with towering uniform buildings making people feel incredibly small amongst the sea of millions of people. However, the art people make of those cities ensures that people can remain connected to their spaces. While the iconic horizons of the concrete jungle will continue to be iconic hundreds of years from now, the people make these vibrant, towering tapestries a symbol of community. After all, it is the drive, the strength, and the commitment of individuals that keep the heartbeat of cities alive. 


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