Book Review: The City is a Novel

  By John Veldhoen

Recently, I fell into conversation with a well-known, inventive portrait photographer over the question of individuality. The gentleman contended that people sometimes look alike, and found a correlation between morphology and character. Dangerous territory, given the history of photography, but I tend to agree with the assertion, and disagree at the same time. Solipsistic, I know, but I never think of a single iota of what I write as “objective” in the slightest, and I forgive solipsism. Dear reader, I hope you do too.

If I may… I think that the identity of the portrait subject is not the same as the identity of a person. I think people are individuals, and one-of-a-kind, whereas expressions, and even personalities, can have universal, archetypal significance. Inside though, deep within, and beyond the view of the camera, I have faith there is something, a thing, which is unencodable. Nevertheless, I am not so certain if the same applies to a place, even more uncertain than I am that a camera can capture essences… A Russian historian and philosopher once coined the term “narratology” to describe the study of the form that does capture the essence of identity, that is to say, stories. My greatest uncertainty, despite the way they have dovetailed in my life, and with each other, is whether, why, and how, photographs relate to storytelling.

Alexey Titarenko has spent his career trying to make narrative pictures. Inspired by the Russian novelist Dostoevsky, he uses a highly affective method to capture a sense of unindividuated, timeless masses of people, traveling through St. Petersburg, and later, Venice, Havana, and New York City. These pictures call into question much of what I believe about individuality. I wrestle with them; they are important, and difficult. I find them immensely complicated, and unnerving. For the first time, Titarenko’s pictures are available in a monograph called “The City is a Novel”. I cannot recommend it highly enough, inasmuch as I do not claim to understand it, nor can I fully commend it as something that I “like”. I tend to think though, that everything that does not match my way of thinking, or my feelings for things, requires me giving the time of day to look, and try to understand.

What I wonder, when I look at the Cyrillic writing over a Russian subway, entered by a giant black cloud of time-soaked humanity, is whether the individualized parts of a place, or the experiences of a life ever constitute the whole. A novel always has the time-stretching affect that a photograph eschews for an all-at-once narrative simplicity. It begs the question, is language itself “nomenclatura”: just another class of bourgeois sympathies, or is it the gift of individual expression? The power to communicate seems more to me than a symptom of class. Maybe I misunderstand Titarenko entirely, especially since he now lives in New York City. Can there be anywhere more idiosyncratic? Sometimes, I think so. New York is now the apogee of globalism. I live in Calgary, a highly individual place with what feels like a particular, distinguishable soul. If the city can be a novel, through the gaze of the photograph, then what can it mean to look at this city, Calgary, while at the same time seeing photographers who continue to reflect on the city around them?

Alexey Titarenko: The City Is A Novel

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In addition to being on our sales team, John curates The Camera Store's book selection and is a contributing author of our blog. He likes to think about photography, talk about photography, and sometimes write about photography.