The rooms are ordered more or less chronologically, beginning with Berenice Abbott's charting of urban growth in New York towards the beginning of the 20th Century. Although predominantly preoccupied with the urban structures of New York, she belongs to and establishes the central themes of this show through her emphasis on their being a consequence of society, of humanity. Logos we now take for granted such as Coca-cola atop symbolic towers are given renewed significance in the historical context. This capitalist agenda in our cities is revisited later in the exhibition with Factory artist Stephen Shore, whose dazzling pastel landscapes of what we are led to believe were previously unnoticed corners of the sprouting cities of the States in the seventies are littered with branding, to the extent that the eye cannot escape commercial messaging of some kind.
Physically, humans are present in about fifty per cent of the artists' works, but their relationship with the urban landscape never fails to be the impetus of the photographers' work. The tone of the show bounces between optimism and cynicism. Walker Evans' belief that, correctly presented, photography could bring some of the social challenges emerging with rapid urbanisation into the spotlight, and subsequently effect some change, is a theme that is seemingly put to one side during the celebratory mid century photographers we see - Julius Schulman's advertisements of California embracing luxury in modernity, Ed Ruscha's playful birdseye snapshots of patterns in parking lots, Shore's suburban mass culture. These artists pleasingly focus on some of the surprises that came with modernity; including the 'anonymous sculptures' seen in Bernd and Hiller Becher's series of 21 European and American water towers, termed a sort of passive 'result of calculation', thanks to its fluid inhabitant.
But socio-political statement is brought back into play as the prints get larger and more arresting. Some of Thomas Struth's exposures of vast urban living environments are so enormous and sparse that community is questioned instantly, as our innate human socialness appears void.
Downstairs, we are taken through a couple of the more visually abstract inclusions of the exhibition, including Luisa Lambri, who challenges the masculine identity of these buildings, all made by white middle class men, by trying to cast her own identity on the space. It is a brief attempt of the curator to bring a theme otherwise scarcely touched by the other photographers, and these entries occupy an awkward corner of the exhibition as if to highlight that. It acts a pallette cleanser before we reach the central space, with huge works by Andreas Gursky, the first artist here to openly embrace digital manipulation - albeit subtly - and reminding the viewer that people actually exist in this urban world. His work shares the room with Bas Princen's glorious documentation of Middle Eastern suburban economies, and Guy Tillem, whose arresting portraits of poorly maintained postcolonial structures introduces another bunch of considerations for the Barbican's bespectacled audience.
The exhibition concludes with Simon Norfolk, Nadav Kander and Iwan Baan's high definition photographs of the Middle Eastern conflicts, the Yangtze and Caracas' Torre David squat respectively, all of which bring us back to the present age that awaits the audience as they leave the concrete Barbican. Kander and Baan, despite the menacing presence of concrete surrounding and shadowing the subjects, choose to project hope and happiness through their images of people going about their daily lives, adapting to the disarray imposed upon their landscape. The exhibition strives to present a single architect each photographer was fixated with, and this helps to establish the disproportion between the architectural teams, and the population they influence. Ending the exhibition on such an optimistic note was inevitable for an institution spearheading controversial urban regeneration in London.
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