Urban Omnibus and the New Spirit of Urban Photography

The venerable Architectural League of New York has fostered interdisciplinary approaches to urbanism since the late 19th century, opening membership to painters and sculptors as well as to architects and other design professionals. Launched earlier this year, its online project Urban Omnibus further expands the organization’s scope by tapping into participatory media culture. It solicits and displays photography in ways that have only became possible in the last few years, and that reflect democratization of the means of producing and disseminating images of the city.

The most interesting photo in the Urban Omnibus Flickr Pool, as selected by Flickr's interestingness feature. Thanks to Pabo76 for licencing this great image of the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant using Creative Commons.

Alongside commissioned articles, Urban Omnibus displays photos of New York that represent multiple perspectives. Images are collected for publication through a Flickr pool; submission is open to everybody. Taking advantage of Flickr’s popularity has the potential to enrich the social networking capacity of Urban Omnibus and to bring like-minded photographers together. While editors haven’t yet revealed their process for crowd-curating photo features, Flickr already offers one built-in possibility. Its interestingness feature automatically ranks photos based on considerations like the number of people who have viewed it or count it as a “fave”.

More formally, the Architectural League of New York is also involved in a photography project that will culminate in a traditional exhibition. Loosely modeled after the WPA Federal Writers’ Project of the 1930’s, the New New York Photography Corps will document and interrogate the city’s changing built environment from 2001 to the present. The Corps will consist of both professional and amateur photographers – anyone with a background in design who is even “a little bit photographically inclined” is encouraged to apply.

Vancouver, BC - 804 Main St. at Union, 1970 - 2009. Thanks to Ivan Oyarzun for licencing this composition with Creative Commons.

Vancouver, BC - 804 Main St. at Union, 1970 - 2009. Thanks to Ivan Oyarzun for licencing this composition with Creative Commons!

The Corps’ 2010 exhibition is bound to capture significant changes in the city’s built form over the project’s eight-year scope. Further into the future, the body of images may prove to be an invaluable resource. As urban environments are erased or changed beyond recognition over time, place-based memories and communities’ stories can be lost; documentation of the built environment’s past can help to evoke such histories. For instance, the pair of pictures above, shared through the Vancouver Then And Now Flickr Group, remember a neighbourhood in Vancouver, BC called Hogan’s Alley which was replaced in the 1970s with the beginnings of a never-completed urban freeway.

The ubiquity of relatively inexpensive digital cameras means that a great many photographers are now able to document the urban built form as they experience it– a task once carried out by a specialists with expensive equipment. These images of the city are becoming increasingly accessible through photo-sharing sites like Flickr and curation sites like Urban Omnibus. In calling for the participation of amateur photographers in both informal and formal projects, The Architectural League of New York taps into these promising developments to photo-document New York in a way that represents a broad range of perspectives and could leave a powerful legacy.

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