“My aim being to secure some fleeting effect, which could only be caught if caught quickly: the effect of a street when crowded with traffic. These effects can be caught by anyone, without peculiarly sensitive or secret preparations of collodion and nitrate baths, and without any super-excellent lenses; but considerable watching and waiting is necessary before an effect turns up which is both capable and worthy of being taken, and, when it does turn up, one must be ready to do it at once, as presto! it is too late.”
‘A Voice from the Hills: Mr Wilson At Home’, British Journal of Photography, XI (1864)
There are at least two conversations taking place in City of Ghosts. One is between John Perivolaris and George Washington Wilson (GWW), about the role of photography in representing cities and shaping our perception of city life. The other is a dialogue between vision and sound, about what each mode of perception reveals to us as we live our lives.
Stillness, slowness and observation served as the foundations for Perivolaris’s photos: a careful scouting of location and an attention to the built forms of the city and how they combine to create urban environments. His deliberate slowing of pace contrasts to our sense of the accelerated nature of life in cities, a phenomenon which was felt particularly acutely with the rapid modernisation of the industrial age. Writing in 1903, Georg Simmel, the great German philosopher of urban life, and a contemporary of GWW’s, identified its defining characteristics as ‘the rapid crowding of changing images, the sharp discontinuity in the grasp of a single glance, and the unexpectedness of onrushing impressions’. GWW undoubtedly shared Simmel’s vision of the city as a rush of speed and movement, full of ‘fleeting effects’ such as the surge of traffic through the streets; and he recognised that the increasing ability to capture such things was the central advance offered by the camera (itself a product of the industrial era) as a technology of perception.
In many ways, GWW is a pioneer of street photography. His mastery of exposure times and film development allowed him to capture cities of the living when others could only produce empty streets or ghostly traces of human presence. Street photography would become one of the most important modes of the twentieth century, and associated with some of the medium’s most well-known practitioners, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand. Its hallmarks were chance, spontaneity and randomness, enabled by technological advances like the lightweight Leica 35mm camera (Cartier-Bresson was a famous Leica user, dancing through the streets on the look-out for ‘decisive moments’).
Perivolaris’s images in City of Ghosts are at once part of that tradition and an interrogation of it. In his decelerated investigation of Aberdeen, his return to analogue photography and his patient work in the developing lab with master printer, David Champion, Perivolaris takes us from fleeting effects towards the slower temporality of urban change, stasis and renewal. He reminds us of how cities move through time, and of the varied fates which, as W. J. T. Mitchell notes, await the buildings giving them form.
“Insofar as buildings are conceived in the mind of an architect, grow up out of the ground, and then become the habitat of other living organisms, from people to parasites, they are like plants that shoot up out of the earth… As they age, they become, like persons, shabby and disreputable, or eminent and distinguished. When they are abandoned, they are haunted by the ghosts of those who once dwelt in them, and are shunned like a corpse from which the soul has departed; when they are destroyed, they leave ghostly replicas in memory or other media.”
W. J. T. Mitchell, ‘Vital Signs | Cloning Terror’, in What Do Pictures Want? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), p. 14.
One of the most intriguing things about Aberdeen is how it displays successive waves of urban change and ways of conceptualising urban space. Walking round the city can feel like being in a vast, three-dimensional textbook of urban design and architecture, from the grand, civic avenue of Union Street, to the hopeful modernism of the Gallowgate housing development. Aberdeen’s car parks, so easily disregarded, stand as memorials to a vision of the city predicated on the motor car and its promise of liberty through personal transport. The views from the top of the Huntly Street car park, like those from the Gallowgate flats, are some of the most expansive in the city.
Deceleration and attention to place themselves allow other aspects of urban life to emerge. Stillness brings with it an awareness of sound and movement, of the energy generated by movement which manifests itself as sound to human beings. When Pete Stollery visited the locations photographed by John Perivolaris, he was struck by the contrast between the empty, silent calm of the images and the rhythms, hums and punctuating noises to be heard there: the ebb and flow of traffic through the streets; the breaking of waves on the shore; the pneumatic screeching of the city’s buses; the unsettling cries of its seagulls. His soundscapes weave the city’s fleeting yet persistent temporalities round the images, just as the images themselves draw out the deep layering of time and space which gives shape to all human environments, and particularly those which have taken shape over several centuries.
Aberdeen emerges from City of Ghosts as a city whose present is haunted in part by visions of the future which held sway at different points in the past; but as a seaboard city, its rhythms are also those of the natural world, of tides and seasons. Sound and image together capture how those different rhythms mesh, echo and conflict with each other.