Making an Impression (Part 1)

We live in a fast-paced world of apparent chaos. The struggle to make sense of it is part of the daily experience. Indeed, the popularity of cameras being shoved into cell phones is a klaxon signal that people are desperately trying to preserve parts of their lives that go too fast for them to appreciate.

Sharing iPhone photos at a cafe in Paris.

As is often the case, answers to "modern" problems like this were solved long ago. Lucky for us, this saves a whole lot of time in the process of finding ways to use art to manage modern life, and make meaningful and lasting images.

A bit of history, and the persistent problem

Until the middle of the 1800’s, Paris had the same structure as it had during the Middle Ages—small, interwoven streets and cramped buildings. In 1794, under the influence of the "miasma" theory that the tight quarters were the cause of illness, a Commission of Artists came up with a plan for redoing the streets. Nothing happened with the plan until Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte became emperor in 1852. He wanted the government to better control a capital where several regimes had been overthrown since 1789, and wanted wide avenues through which to move troops.

Napoleon III tasked Georges-Eugène Haussmann with urbanization, and gave him broad powers to implement the plans. Haussmann used that power to seize property, require owners to make changes to building facades, and to completely level and rebuild parts of Paris. Haussmann defined the maximum height of buildings, and their features—including balconies and roof pitch—were mandated. Neighboring buildings had to have floors at the same height, as well as matching exterior lines. Quarry stone was mandatory along the avenues. Wide boulevards, landscaped gardens, and monuments were designed to frame France’s imperial history. The plan and its result made the city look like an extensive palace.

But the urbanization of Paris had unintended consequences beyond the wide streets and uniform look, not the least of which is that the restructuring altered time and space. Upending centuries of human interaction, the urbanization introduced visual-spatial confusion, distorted individuals' abilities to interact with their fellow citizens, and imposed a cognitive attention load which made everything seem to be going too fast to keep up with. 

Today, we suffer these same effects of urbanization, centralization, and industrialization, with streams of headlines and articles attempting to help us cope with the constant flood of information and the pace of "modern" society by using "efficiency" and "attention" tips. Contrary to the plethora of self-help books, life-hack websites, and anti-corporate calls for a return to primitive times, answers to our present version of the "modern" dilemma were first discovered shortly after the changes to Paris, and work quite well today. 

Trying to find a moment to read in the chaos of geometric shapes and the noise of the Paris Metro is a problem of modern life (even if the accordion is kind of quaint).

The first of the discovered answers was philosophical: how we can make sense of a seemingly chaotic world by increasing our objective observations and using proxemics. This is the flaneur approach which Baudelaire highlighted in The Painter of Modern Life, and which Edgar Allan Poe used to develop the detective story. We have previously discussed these concepts as underlying our approach to The Photographer of Modern Life, and understanding the basic concepts serves as a great answer to ordering and making sense of the world, as well as finding one's own place in the apparent chaos.

Applying the philosophy in a visual way, though, is what photography is about, and it's always been the task of the artist to help the public to grapple with the noise of society by presenting some signal. Lucky for us, some excellent artists paved the way with an approach they called Impressionism.

NEXT, we will take a look at the rise of Impressionism, and see how their solutions can be our solutions.