‘The Fiery Pool’

Anastasia Samoylova, Image Cities, Fundación MAPFRE / Hatje Cantz, 2023

Book blurb:

In the latest series from Anastasia Samoylova, the Russian-born, Miami-based photographer studies the proliferation of photographic images in urban environments across the world. Samoylova observes how, in our neoliberal era of networked economic markets and networked imagery, the global centers of internationalized money and culture are becoming increasingly aligned and similar: “all these cities are moving towards a generic urban landscape of anonymous steel and glass architecture in which homes, offices and storefronts all appear and feel the same. This is a new global order in which old ideas of nationality are at odds with the 21st-century notion of borderless economics and transnational culture. And yet, those older ideas are now deployed as attractive marketing devices, giving the illusion that these cities are somehow still appealing in their uniqueness rooted in the past.” Samoylova’s work also points to the role photography plays in creating this ideological gap between branded urban identity and lived reality.

HATJE CANTZ (March 2023); ISBN-10  3775754806; ISBN-13 ‏ : 978-3775754804


The Fiery Pool

by David Campany

Anastasia Samoylova is a collagist at heart, although what she collages are as likely to be conflicting thoughts and experiences as images. Whether she is working in her studio or photographing the richness of daily life, in all her art there is an underlying feeling of cognitive dissonance, of elements brought together, not quite cohering but rubbing against each other to strange effect. Image Cities is the latest in her sequence of extraordinarily ambitious photographic projects, and the persistence of collage is clear. Her seductive compositions of bravura formal unity are motivated by deep and troubling tensions.

An initial response to this body of work would seem at first straightforward: Samoylova is interested in the proliferation of public images in a number of generally wealthy cities. Real-estate billboards. Corporate fashion branding. Car manufacturers’ campaigns. Banking and insurance propaganda. The allure of tourism. Often monumental in scale, the fabric of these images is frequently integrated into the urban architecture itself, blurring any simple distinction between surface and built form, between picture and substance. But why is this happening to these cities and what is at stake?

It would be tempting to read Samoylova’s photographs as a polemic against the triumph of an increasingly international consumerism, and the divisive effects of the speculative housing market with its incessant waves of gentrification. It is clear that a global visual-economic order now wraps itself around whatever once felt local and civic about these places. It is slowly numbing them, and perhaps us as well. This is how the dominant order of twenty-first century capitalism looks and feels. And yet, Image Cities is more elusive than any simple argument or statement.  There is so much more going on within and between these photographs. Samoylova is an artist of intelligent play. Formal play. Rhetorical play. Spatial play. Temporal play. Conceptual play. Historical play. She ventures into our thick forest of signs and symbols, to see what an alert mind and eye will make of it all.

An artist need not express a clear point of view, even if they have one. In fact, it is probably an advantage if they do not express it. But an observational photographer needs subject matter or themes. This combination of defined themes and withheld views has characterized the best observational work of the last century. Clear and direct pictures with less than direct meanings. Since they show without being able to explain, photographs make for ideal propositions, or even provocations, posing questions without having answers. They suspend, not just because the camera holds the world still and stares at its appearance, but because it is unable to pass simple judgment. Samoylova embraces this. For her, to photograph is to condense a set of visual and social ideas and set them spinning.

Image Cities began in Moscow (where Samoylova grew up) in the early summer of 2021, followed by New York and London. At that point the interest was in cities, as her original project statement put it:

In today’s age of neoliberal economies, interconnected financial markets and related images, big cities are becoming increasingly alike. However, these great economic and cultural centers try to promote their individuality, often giving new meaning to their specific history. Moscow promotes itself as a protagonist in the world economy, but through a manipulated iconography of its past. New York, a city deeply uncomfortable with itself, looks to its triumphant past and imagined future while ignoring its current problems. London, a fading imperial power, mobilizes its heritage as if it were a contemporary cultural asset.

The choice of cities derived largely from a survey published biannually by the Globalization and World Cities Research Network (GaWC), which ranks cities according to their degree of “global interconnectedness.” Only New York and London currently hold the “Alpha++” rating, followed by Paris, Tokyo, Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, Dubai, and Singapore, on “Alpha+.” Project statements and photographs are not the same thing, and thankfully so. Nevertheless, it is instructive to think how this set of ideas was at least the springboard for the wider project. As Samoylova explored another dozen cities, the photographs she made suggest subtle but important shifts in emphasis, not least toward the experience of gender: her own as she walked hundreds of solitary miles, and within the depictions of women that she encountered along the way.

An iconography of women dominates the visual inventory of all these cities, although what this might mean is complicated. On the one hand, it indicates the persistence of some very old and stereotypically patriarchal ideas about “woman as image,” as object of visual pleasure, “woman as spectacle”, and of the “feminine” as an overfamiliar embodiment of lifestyle and consumer culture. On the other, the top of the GaWC list mirrors closely the list of cities regarded as best for women in terms of social mobility, economic power, and safety. Of course, there is oftentimes still a long way to go, and some of GaWC’s top cities rank quite low in opportunities for women. Nevertheless, a broad correlation is evident. Patriarchal object and feminist resistance, playing out at the level of public imagery: one could write an entire book on this duality, but it is unlikely to be as complex as Samoylova’s response to it, which deepens and twists from image to image, and city to city.

Sometimes the women on these billboards seem no more than spectacle, a shorthand signaling of the desire for commodities, or even the commodification of desire. At other times, they are symbols of liberation, of the freedoms that may come with financial independence and social autonomy. This is not to say that the two are mutually exclusive. Indeed, a large amount of contemporary commercial imagery mobilizes female independence as a hyper-visual currency. Samoylova is adept at reframing all this, adding nuance to the implications of these public depictions of women, so that they might undo their own myths and subtexts. Physical fitness advertising can easily look like neofascist body propaganda. Real-estate billboards suddenly look like sinister social programming. And “freedom” is revealed to be constrained by consumer choice. Meanwhile, a fashion image framed by Samoylova to cut out the brand name may set the model free. Symbolically, at least.

It is no surprise to see so many of the people in these photographs using smartphones. They could be doing any number of things: taking photos, texting, scrolling social media, talking, reading the news, or reading Proust, for all we know. They are moving through city space while being at least partly somewhere else in their imaginations. Their existence is already a collage of places and times. Despite what the advocates of “mindfulness” might promote—the need to be fully “in the moment”—it is actually one of humanity’s great gifts that we can never achieve this. Our minds are too layered. We have memories, we have plans, we have fantasies and fears. This certainly makes us liable to distraction and anxiety. Nevertheless, being in many mental states at once is also the condition of the dreamer, and the creator. Imagination requires it. Citizens in twentieth-century street photographs carried a newspaper or a book, but now they carry interactive screens, often looking at them as they walk. When they look up, they see images that might relate to those in their hands or minds. Or they might not.

The idea of the city as a visual and mental collage is not new. In the 1920s, many artists and writers were prompted to respond to it. This is Siegfried Kracauer, from his essay “Photography” (1927):

The street in the extended sense of the word is not only the arena of fleeting impressions and chance encounters but a place where the flow of life is bound to assert itself . . . The kaleidoscopic sights mingle with unidentified shapes and fragmentary visual complexes and cancel each other out, thereby preventing the onlooker from following up any of the innumerable suggestions they offer. What appears to him are not so much sharp contoured individuals engaged in this or that definable pursuit as loose throngs of sketchy, completely indeterminate figures. Each has a story yet the story is not given.[1]

Two years earlier, Virginia Woolf had published Mrs Dalloway, a remarkable novella in which a woman moves through her neighborhood of St James’s, London, while recalling her past and imagining events and conversations to come. Sights and impressions cause her mind to wander. Woolf interweaves the experience of real space and real time with the elastic space-time of an agitated inner life. Clarissa Dalloway’s day in the street switches from lucid engagement with her morning tasks to something close to daydreaming, her eyes and body doing one thing, while her mind does several others. Her inner world begins to swirl. The dislocation comes from the trauma of World War I, but Woolf is also attempting to capture something of the modernity of the city, with its broken intensities. Samoylova’s photograph of vintage fighter planes superimposed on a neoclassical white façade seems to me an astute allusion to London’s awkward preoccupation with an idealized history full of pageant, benevolence, and military victory. It is also a striking echo of Woolf’s book. But all of Samoylova’s images invite these kinds of resonance and association, because her sophisticated knowledge of history and culture surfaces in unforced and unexpected ways.

The 1920s was also the period in which visual culture expanded dramatically. Cinema became a mass medium. Newsstands carried ever more illustrated magazines and newspapers. Billboards grew in size and number. Toward the end of that decade, Walker Evans, one of Samoylova’s key antecedents, began to photograph American advertising as if it were a kind of code hiding in plain sight.  If you want to understand modern society, be prepared to sift through not just what it aspires to but what it discards: its trash. Billboard images are both. They go up fresh and spontaneous only to be junked and replaced in a matter of weeks. The images die but the dreams resurface, and to photograph the ephemeral presence of a billboard is to give it an afterlife it neither expected nor deserved.

As Evans began photographing America, in Germany the cultural critic Walter Benjamin published One Way Street (Einbahnstrasse, 1928), a carefully sequenced collage of paragraphs about modern life. It is another of Samoylova’s touchstones. On the matter of commercial imagery, Benjamin came to much the same conclusion as Evans:

What, in the end, makes advertisements so superior to criticism? Not what the moving red neon sign says—but the fiery pool reflecting it in the asphalt.[2]

City lights shimmering in water was already a photographic cliché, something for serious artists to avoid. However, Samoylova has a striking habit of taking cliché seriously. It has fascinated her for the best part of a decade now. She engages with it, takes it apart and reassembles it, gambling that the easy allure of the cliché can be taken to a level of pictorial sophistication that might allow it to become “criticism” of the sort Benjamin hoped for. Image Cities is full of knowing and masterful refinements of so many of the existing clichés of urban photography. Citizens dwarfed by giant images. The storefront window as an aquarium of consumer reverie. Images of eyes and mouths. Faces and bodies refracted through glass. Architectural trompe l’oeil. The Pop-Cubism of visual bricolage. Such imagery has a century-long history, and Samoylova knows it well.  She is paying attention not only to what she sees, but to how we see, and how seeing is itself conditioned by the image cities in which so many of us must conduct our lives, for good or bad.

[1] Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (Princeton, NJ, 1960), p. 72.

[2] Walter Benjamin, Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott (New York, 1978), p. 86.

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