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Cities of modernity: The self and the city through text, image, and moving images

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  1. Introduction
  2. Description of paintings
  3. Comparisons
  4. Conclusion

I have decided to study the aspect of light in the city. In a city, there are several sources of light, some natural, like the sun, or the stars, some artificial as streetlights or festive illuminations. But studying the light also means studying the absence of light, the darkness. How do those different sources of light affect our perception of the city? How does the city change with the different hours of the day? Why is the city not the same at midnight as at noon? To study this large theme, we have chosen three different documents. Two of them involve images: one painting of the 19th century by Eugène Jansson that pictures Stockholm and one photograph of the 20th century by Berenice Abbott on New-York. Our last document is the extract of a novel, Oliver Twist by Dickens, in which the action takes place in London.

This is a painting of the Swedish painter Eugène Jansson. It depicts the city of Stockholm at twilight. In 1899 (the year of this canvas), Stockholm was a highly dynamic city: located on the banks of the Baltic sea, it was the economical center and gateway of the country. Moreover, at the time, the population was rapidly increasing. The painter lived almost all his life in this city so he is emotionally attached to it. What we see here is a view of Stockholm from a high point of view. It is what the painter was seeing from his studio.

[...] More than just opposing the city of the 19th century and the city of the 20th, those two images oppose the city of the day to the city of the night. In the photograph, it is noon. The streets are full of agitated people doing the same kind of things (probably going to work, taking their children at the school, etc.). The sun is so intense that on one side it blinds everything in the street and on in the other side, it let all the buildings in the shadows. [...]

[...] Berenice Abbott has had to take her photograph at a very precise moment of the day: probably at noon because the light falls straight down on the street and not at all on the buildings. The sun, falling down perfectly straight on the street creates a feeling of dynamism, of heat and activity. The pavements seems to be full of people rapidly walking, the street is full of cars. But, even if there are a lot of people in this street, there is no feeling of saturation: the cars are still able to move forward, etc. [...]

[...] We see the city at the level (literally and symbolically) of a child. In this extract, Oliver is living the wake up of the city and in parallel the wake up of the sun. That is why those two elements are so tied up together in his mind. Comparison images and text This extract contrasts with both images. The vision of the city, and of the role of the light it in carried by Dickens is totally different from the vision of Jansson and Abbott. [...]

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