Here’s one way to make sense of the world now, the unsettling of the old order, the historical tipping point we all seem to be on. The Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is having her main character in Americanah reflect on wealthy Nigerians’ predilection for shiny new things, while affluent Westerners are wholly into farm-to-table restaurants and restored historic homes: “But of course it makes sense because we are Third Worlders and Third Worlders are forward-looking, we like things to be new, because our best is still ahead, while in the West their best is already past and so they have to make a fetish of that past. Remember this is our newly middle-class world. We haven’t completed the first cycle of prosperity, before going back to the beginning again, to drink milk from the cow’s udder.”
In a phrase, if a society has never known McDonald’s, McDonald’s is truly the Golden Arches … till you realize it’s just overpriced thin patties of meat and gobs of sticky sauce.
What Adichie still calls the Third World is racing with all their energy (and universal cell phones and Chinese infrastructure investment) toward the golden dream. And they’re going fast.
Which is why Fast Cities is the perfect title for the Norwegian photographer Morten Andersen’s new book. His first photobook, from 1999, was Fast City, zippy, punky shots taken around Oslo, almost all black-and-white with a few in color. All of Andersen’s work is high-energy, he’s known as a rock ’n’ roll fan and shooter, and Fast City has some Provoke-like blur, a bit of a Stephen Shore whatever’s-in-front-of-me vibe, yet the book is all Andersen.
Here’s how Andersen explains what he’s up to in Fast Cities: “With curiosity, camera and boots made for walking I set out to explore the streets of Mexico City, Cairo, Mumbai, Kolkata, Dhaka, Shanghai, Sao Paulo, Djakarta and Lagos” … all cities experiencing huge population growth, heaps of new money, wide swaths of intractable poverty … and out there somewhere boundless dreams of golden arches.
So what does he find? Here’s my best summation: There’re a lot of people out there, all different. A lot of life. A lot that’s new, a lot that looks just as tangled and impossibly poor and messy as when I traveled around the world forty years back. A lot of streets. A whole lot of what the media calls tribalism, venerable ways of dressing, conducting daily affairs. A lot of the way the past insistently presses into the present.
To that end, we have (in the book’s second photo) a teenage boy micturating against a streetside wall. We have hideous snakes of electric cable trying to hold a city’s power together. We have an actual cobra proudly lifted out of an ancient wooden box. We have Indians sharing banquets atop rolling railroad cars. We have Nigerian women forgoing purses or bags and elegantly carrying their goods in large metal pails atop their heads. We have a middle-aged Chinese woman in red miniskirt and boots, right after a shot of a scatter of dogs in the middle of a highway, followed a few photos on by a mysterious board game played with red and white stones on a chalk-drawn scribble on the sidewalk.
We have a world of cities that, if they are rushing fast to the future, sure are deep-dyed in the past. A couple hundred pages into Fast Cities, and I haven’t seen a McDonald’s yet; which, much as I like my trope above, may mostly mean that Andersen (anyone?) doesn’t think a picture of somebody eating a Big Mac is that interesting, which of course doesn’t mean that right outside his frames people aren’t dreaming of Big Macs, as well as gobbling them down them by the millions.
It’s just that these fast cities are also pretty damn slow. Andersen’s world still hasn’t completed that “first cycle of prosperity,” the people in it are still drinking milk from the cow’s udder … or at least, as one photo shows us, a boy carrying a raw-meat carcass from an animal (cow? horse? something I can’t recognize?) with its tail attached. (Even McDonald’s probably won’t put horse-tail burgers on the menu.)
But of course what we see is the choice of the photographer, and that leads to an interesting thought on how anybody takes the photos they shoot.
First off, Fast Cities is a book of journeys, eyes alight, not any kind of treatise. It reflects a choice: Take in the world but don’t impress your expectations on it. Which thins out my conceit above. Sure there’s a shot of a lovely hijab-wrapped girl with an iPad in hand, a dog happily riding a skateboard, a middle-aged Chinese woman in a red miniskirt, but Andersen clearly isn’t out to show us only the way modern Western accoutrements have invaded the Third World; no, he’s really just a photographer after the best photograph.
And damn if he doesn’t get them. There’s not a weak shot in the book, but, interestingly, there aren’t any that will win Andersen the Pulitzer Prize. The news (and the book is full of news, subtle and almost incidental) is not explicitly newsworthy. And the photos by themselves don’t ring out as Once-in-a-Lifetime shots.
No, what Anderen’s photos in Fast Cities do is add up to a book. This is what he’s always done, make photobooks; and it’s the purposeful making of photos-that-will-endure-in-a-book that demonstrates so well the strength of a photobook over just any old group of photos.
Lately I’ve been going out shooting around NYC with a more traditional photographer friend, and it’s clear we see things differently. She’s looking for a more Pulitzer-like photo, or at least one she can sell to a newspaper or website. I can think of another photographer who told me he thinks of every shot he takes as an 11 x 14–inch photo hanging framed on a wall.
Not me. Essentially, I shoot to make photobooks, not to take stand-alone pictures. Photos that will speak to the ones around them, harmonize or be discordant, yet always reveal complex meanings bound in with other photos, creating a whole greater than their parts.
Here’s another way to think of this, going back to Robert Frank’s The Americans. Sure, budget willing, it would be cool to hang one of Frank’s Americans photos on your wall, and there are shots of his I love more than others, but would you trade any of the individual pictures for the complete book experience? And when you do see one of Frank’s shots in a gallery or auction, don’t you immediately think of how and where it sits in his timeless book?
Simply put, a photobook becomes great when all the shots in it add up.
This feels like what Andersen is up to, too. He’s in these foreign lands with his camera, walking around, grabbing every shot he can—he’s only in each place for a week, so, sick or well, he’s there busy-busying about with his camera every day—and then back home putting the best of them together into Fast Cities.
One curiosity of Andersen’s new book is portended by the final page of his first. The back of Fast City is a street shot of a building through aqua-colored netting, a direct link to the twenty-years-later Fast Cities, with the new book’s overall blue tint, the layering of images with reflections and scrims and fences, the concatenation of portraits and street shots and advertisements and all kinds of crazy activity all over the world.
But after hundreds of pages of Fast Cities, I was asking, Why the overall blue-aqua tint to almost every photo? Does Andersen see that as a signature?
Personally, I’d prefer a wider range of colors and tones, one that doesn’t tend to make each locale look such a counterpart of the others. The blue tint, as well as the quick, Daido Record–like recording of what’s around him, are certainly Andersen trademarks. His work is also similar to the New York City photographer Ari Marcopoulos, another fast-on-the-shutter rock and roll street photographer. With both, their style is their work is their style … it all goes round and round, personal style at times expansive and illuminating, but often closed-in and circular.
Which is not to take away from what’s grand and important about Fast Cities. I can think of books that go deeper and richer into distant cultures, but none with quite the breadth and ambition (over 300 pages of full-bleed photos!) of Andersen’s new book. Fast Cities adds up to a wide portrait of our crazy, mixed-up world, ever changing, ever resilient.
Andersen’s boots made for walking? Indeed … and not only Nancy Sinatra should be proud of the latest photobook he’s given us.
Fast Cities by Morten Andersen can be purchased here.
Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His latest novel is Savage Joy, inspired by his first years in NYC and working at The New Yorker magazine. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, Carnival of Souls, and New York Street are in the permanent collection of the libraries of the Museum of Modern Art and the International Center of Photograph (more info on Dunn’s own photobooks here; prints of his work can be ordered here, follow his instagram here). Dunn also teaches a course called “Writing the Photobook” at the New School University in New York City.