The Visual City: Photography, Film, and Postcards

“If the city is the raw material for production, for economic development, and for academic research, it has also been available to artists,” writes Helen Liggett in her 2003 work, Urban Encounters. “Photographs can function as sites of participatory reading that provoke urban encounters, first, in the relationship between the photographer and the city, and, second, in the relationships between viewers and the city images.” Dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, photography serves as one of the oldest means by which artists and others sought to capture the “visual city” and how a city’s identity might be projected across time and space, absorbed by viewers in all manners and ways. Photography, she adds, functions to bear witness to the city through the end product (the image) as well as to us as the image’s viewer and producer.[1]

Photography stands as just one example of our theme for February: the Visual City. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, additional mediums that captured and conveyed the city visually soon developed in connection with photography, notably film and postcards. These three formats will serve as our entry into the discussion.

Film’s undoubtedly apocryphal origin myth situates its beginnings in an 1895 Parisian basement where the brothers Lumiere projected a series of moving images on a blank screen, which incited equal amounts of terror and excitement among their bewildered audience members. Though Los Angeles would eventually supplant all other cities in regard to film production, during the first few decades of the twentieth century, Paris, Berlin, London, Moscow, and New York all played key roles in its development. From the outset, however, as Barbara Mennel notes, film broadcast the machinations of city life to national and international audiences: “Urban sites – such as the street, the skyline, the bar – were important markers of cities in early cinema.” Cities also served an economic role in two ways: 1) they functioned as critical sites for the larger industry since “capital for production” aggregated in them, and 2) greater profits could be attained by “locating movies houses there because the urban population had ever more expendable income and leisure time.”[2]

Postcard shows an aerial view of Paris, E. Neurdein, between 1904 and 1914, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

In contrast, postcards embodied the mobility of the modern era. Entrepôts for finance, labor, and cosmopolitanism, cities boomed during the early twentieth century. Globally, the years between 1880 and the outbreak of World War I represent one of the largest migrations of peoples across the world in modern history. Improvements in transportation and technology meant visual reminders of the places people visited took on even greater importance and increased in popularity. In the United States, greater numbers of people arrived in its cities every day both for leisure and work. Postcards emerged as a favored means by which to document and communicate such movement. “Large companies produced huge runs of these postcards because there were many people in and around cities to buy them,” writes historian Robert Charles Bogdan in his forthcoming contribution to this month’s theme. “Tourists bought them to send to friends and family as a means to broadcast their travels while residents bought them as a substitute for letter writing as well as to add to their collections.”

As these visual mediums spread in popularity, other forces paralleled their growth. Taylorization regimented work schedules and routines; industrialization increased commercial growth and reshaped people’s relationships to urban spaces; immigration demographically remapped the world’s metropolises and the neighborhoods and communities that comprised them. In America, as photographs, films, and postcards visually documented urban living, beginning in 1910 and moving forward the Chicago school textualized “the city,” thereby creating “dominant urban imaginaries” sanctioned by leading sociologists of the day.[3] The “intellectual city” juxtaposed a more sensory-based counterpart, if you will.

Meanwhile, modernism exerted its influence in arts, architecture, and literature, emphasizing movement, authenticity, and spectacle. Exciting, new, and dangerous at the turn of the century, modernism would be institutionalized after the Second World War and later replaced by the meta-commentary of postmodernism.

Grounds of the Royal Palace, Berlin, Germany, 1926, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Postmodernism forged a new meaning and connection between the Visual City mediums and their depictions of the metropolis. “Modernity’s surfaces, entirely site-and-street specific yet mobile and mobilizing,” notes Janet Ward, “have been replaced by the stasis of the fluid mobility granted to our perception by the technologies of television, the VCR, the World Wide Web, and virtual reality.”[4]

Cities such as Berlin, the subject of Ward’s 2001 book, Weimer Surfaces, sat at the fulcrum of this division between eras. Weimer Berlin celebrated the “cult of the surface,” meaning the spectacle—the look and feel of urbanity on its surfaces from architecture to film to photography to fashion and so on—served as “determinants of taste, activity, and occupation … modernity was still modern, and spectacle was still spectacle.” The meta-pastiche of postmodernism had yet to dominate; its calling card of simulation remained dormant while the “stimulation” of modernism and the surfaces of the city, very real and not replicated and which produced this excitement, retained cultural sway.[5]

metropolis-3-sheet-lithograph__66705.1468115665During the 1920s, Berlin filmmakers were among the leaders of the industry; Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is arguably the most famous example. In its depiction of Berlin’s streets, film occupied a dual role as product and producer.[6] Film had been created in and by cities while at the same time its portrayal of metropolitan life established the very urban culture that would follow. The Visual City operates similarly, at once product of the world’s urban places while at the same time the driver of how we envision and connect to a metropolis.

In the postmodern era, these mediums have taken on different but no less impactful meanings that can be deduced from a single example: Disneyland. Walt Disney’s Orange County amusement park imposed its simulated ideal of life in the United States, replete with a Main Street reminiscent of small town America. “Walt Disney’s Disneyland reflected the use of three dimensional space for the transmission of cultural values and meanings … particularly a respect for tradition and order – among a diverse and often unruly public,” writes Eric Avila.[7] Rising next to the burgeoning California highway system, at the time a symbol of the state’s buoyant modernity, photographs, film, and postcards reproduced this simulation for national audiences  and conveyed the dominant ideals of mid-century America: homogeneity, order, and tradition. “Disney Realism,” as some have called it, removed negative, unwanted or uncomfortable aspects of a subject “and progamm[ed] in all the positive elements,” one official asserted.[8] Depictions of urbanity, threatening and exciting even under modernism, shed the latter and emphasized the former, particularly in regard to race and gender.

California- Santa Ana, Anaheim [Disneyland], Don Dornan, July 25, 1974, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
“The majority of Americans no longer walk in the city. The city comes to us via the media wherever we live, so there is no more need to experience urban surface culture,” Ward points out. The only places designed for walking are shopping malls, many of which in the United States are based on the “Disneyland/Disney World/Euro Disney” model. The Visual City of modernism captured and conveyed a different understanding of the urban metropolis and, yet, the Visual City of today both shapes and represents the kind of contemporary placelessness Ward discusses. All of which is to say, even if fundamentally different, the Visual City remains just as representative of modern living as it did 100 years ago.

As always our bibliography is merely a stepping stone into the topic. If you have further suggestions please do add them in the comments. Thanks to Anton Rosenthal for all his help with the bibliography and organizing our contributors this month.


Avila, Eric. Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

Bogdan, Robert Charles and Todd Weseloh. Real Photo Postcard Guide: The People’s Photography. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2006.

Boyer, M. Christine. The City of Collective Memory: Its Historical Imagery and Architectural Entertainments. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1996.

—–. Dreaming the Rational City: The Myth of American City Planning. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1986.

—–. Manhattan Manners: Architecture and Style, 1850-1900. New York: Rizzoli, 1985.

Clark, Catherine E. Paris and the Cliché of History: The City and Photographs, 1860-1970. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2018

Davis, Mike. Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster. New York: Vintage Books, 1998.

Donald, James. Imagining the Modern City. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Liggett, Helen. Urban Encounters. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Rosenthal, Anton. “The Streetcar in the Urban Imaginary of Latin America.” Journal of Urban History 42, no. 1 (2016): 162-179. URL:

Soppelsa, Peter. “Visualizing Viaducts in 1880s Paris.” History and Technology 27, no. 3 (2011): 371-7. URL: 

Stites Mor, J., ed. The Art of Solidarity: Visual and Performative Cultures in Cold War Latin America. Austin: University of Texas, 2018.

——. Transition Cinema: Political Filmmaking and the Argentine Left since 1968Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, May 2012.

Ward, Janet. Weimer Surfaces: Urban Visual Culture in 1920s Germany. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

[1] Helen Liggett, Urban Encounters (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 118, 122.

[2] Barbara Mennel, Cities and Cinema (New York: Routledge, 2008), 7, 6.

[3] Micaela di Leonardo, “City,” in Keywords for American Cultural Studies, eds. Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler (New York: New York University Press, 2008), 43.

[4] Janet Ward, Weimer Surfaces: Urban Visual Culture in 1920s Germany (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 1.

[5] Ward, Weimer Surfaces, 2.

[6] Mennel, Cities and Cinema, 23.

[7] Eric Avila, Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 113.

[8] John Findlay, Magic Lands: Western Cityscapes and American Culture after 1940 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 69-70.

Featured image (at top): Deutsche Haus, the German pavilion at the Paris International Exposition of 1937, exhibit hall in the pavilion, 1937, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

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