PLACE WITHOUT PEOPLE
(for CRIT Magazine, Winter 2003)
In my photographs of landscape and architecture I am always seeking to convey a sense of place, and I strongly respond to it in the work of others. That phrase "a sense of place" seems ubiquitous today, perhaps because we as a nation are losing it. Some of us know it when we see it -- I think I do -- but what are we really talking about? Is it visual? spatial? geographic? social?
None of my serious photographs have any people in them. I'm from the neutron bomb school of photography. I regard my pictures of houses and Main Streets as "portraits" of the buildings. Each building is an individual with a life of its own. It has its own size and shape, its own body language and attitude, its own embellishments; it even has a face.
When I cruise around by car or bicycle looking for subjects, I'm after a certain regional character in architecture and a harmonious relationship between the house and its land. Is that enough for a sense of place? Or is the life of a place dependent on its people: their activities, their clothing, their rituals, their lawn ornaments?
I venture to say it is not. Not necessarily.
Twenty years ago I hiked the Milford Track of New Zealand. It's a stunning, varied, unpredictable land. A day of rain brings hundreds of silvery rivulets cascading down the cliff walls of the valleys. A day of sun at the top of Mackinnon Pass brings an unforgettable view that few experience. You don't have to be with other people for this place to become part of you forever.
Even in a city, you can experience place through architecture and streets without encountering other people. This is true when I photograph downtowns before dawn, or visit a deserted ruin. Of course, the house or town itself is evidence that humans made the place and created a family or community there, so their presence is certainly felt.
The power of place can shape the character of a life. We as architects, urbanists, or landscape photographers have to believe this is so. Winston Churchill famously declared, "We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us," but we have to admit that the landscape -- geology, climate, weather, flora, fauna -- came first.
It's true that when you look at a neighborhood like Greenwich Village, revered by urbanists for its sense of place, there doesn't seem to be any "natural" landscape left. We tend to think of Greenwich Village as Jane Jacobs does, as the changeable product of close-knit, mixed-use street humanity. Yet there is a quality of place that has nothing to do with people. The fact of Manhattan being an island is always there, creating a feeling of compactness, separateness, and specialness, while still offering the relief and release of the open water, only a few blocks away.
©2003 Sandy Sorlien