Glaze: Reflections on Justin Wonnacott’s Necessary Pictures


Randy Innes

12 June 2012


Photography shapes how cities and their occupants are imagined. While Thomas Annan’s survey of the streets of Glasgow at the turn of the nineteenth century documents a world of poverty and distress, Lee Friedlander’s photographs of urban America are ambiguous in intent and content. William Klein’s photographic visioning of the speed and energy of post-war cities accompanied a desire to value the snap-shot and the fleeting moment as they could be pictured by the camera. Justin Wonnacott’s photographic practice has a place here, in this broad and sometimes unwieldy genre called street photography. More than just a fashion or trend, street photography was present at photography’s invention. The genre has captured innumerable urban demographics, locations, events, and behaviours. Perhaps what street photography holds in common is simply the human desire to observe how we use, occupy and behave in shared, public spaces.


If this is the case, approaching the genre of street photography might also contribute to a reflection on photographic practices in general. While photography is good at surveying and at recording the world that appears before the lens, the medium also gives us time to dwell on the details that we might otherwise miss in the hurly-burly of everyday life. On one hand photography provides us with information; on the other hand it draws attention to the photograph’s unique location between the material world and the interior world of imagination, image-formation, and sense-impression. Street photography, like the photograph itself, negotiates the limits between social and individual, public and private, between the transient moment and the permanent record.


We know now that photography is never simply an objective representation of the world. Photography isolates a particular aspect of the world, frames it and sets it apart for attention. The photograph is a fragment that has been torn from the social and material whole, a whole that was once part of the flow that passed before the camera lens. Like the streets, then, photography occupies a marginal place between the public and the imaginary, between evidential record and the imaginary. By paying attention to how photography negotiates the fluid, outside world and the fragments that make up both the lived and dreamed realities of our individual lives we may learn something about the medium, and about what it presents for us to see.


Necessary Pictures is a glaringly bright survey of movement and stoppage, signal and gesture, dreamscape and the promise of consumer capitalism, and this series continues a photographic exploration of urban spaces that Wonnacott has been pursuing for decades. If the recent survey Somerset created a typological portrait-study of vernacular building façades and streetscapes, Necessary Pictures considers the human condition as it has been framed by an environment of commercial building frontages, municipal planning strategies, and the crowds of modern life. Wonnacott’s visual inquiry into the dynamics of human passage through urban spaces negotiates the world of the urban-commercial sidewalk, the orders and codes this world establishes, and discrete moments of individual presence. Throughout, individuals are pictured now in the fray, now in moments of arrest. These snapshots, most taken from chest level and spontaneously, with no pre-visualization – “from the hip”, as it were – show us urban spaces and dispositions in a way that raises point-of-view as a question, and that leads us wonder at the scene and the moment that the camera has captured.


Take, for instance, the improbable postures we sometimes assume in public spaces. The angular relationships between pedestrians in Ottawa 2011/p. 52-53 are in part the result of the geometry of architectural design and urban planning. The black marble base of the Chateau-style post-office fames a perpendicular casual stance, and supports a bicycle. A cement bench provides an elevated view beyond the photographic space and onto nearby Confederation Square, where Remembrance Day events are taking place (consider the clothing and lapel poppies – photographic evidence!). A royal couple looks down from their philatelic apparition in a window, embedding in the architectural frame a certain formality that is repeated in the arrested sidewalk postures. Walter Benjamin argued that architecture shapes our habits by indoctrinating us to a process of casual, inattentive noticing that in turn cultivates and directs habitual behaviours.[1] Like Ottawa 2011, Necessary Pictures offers a snapshot and invites attentive contemplation of the inattentive habits that unfold in our urban settings.


Sidewalks and civic spaces are the end result of architectural and engineering decisions that in turn inform and direct individual and social life. While Ottawa 2011/p. 52-53 evokes the static formalities that are framed by the architecture of commemoration and state ceremony, Wonnacott’s attention in this series falls for the most part on the less official, but no less ideological and wide-reaching effects of commerce, capital, and urban flow. In New York 2009/p. 27 a rainbow reflection of the sun off a compact disk illuminates the face of youth. The image is at once intimate and public, and the face reflects a desire, a pleasure and a need that are produced by – and that can only be satisfied by – capitalism’s promise of youthful renewal. If the first picture gives us a contemplative moment of ceremonial repose engineered through a combination of public ritual behavior and architectural-urban engineering, this second image evokes the pressures and energy of the crowds, and a point of view that is equally caught up in and determined by this flow.


Montreal 2010/p. 7 presents us with another improbable or at least unexpected posture, but raises another set of questions about the architecture of commercial urban spaces. A pedestrian seems to have taken refuge from the flow that is carrying on around her and stands feet fixed together in a kind of non-location – the space between two planters. There is no bench here, no bus stop, only a space of suspension from the clutter of municipal, commercial and vandal codes and instructions. That this liminal space had to be sought at all raises questions about the relationship between the dynamics and pressures of the sidewalk and the needs of its users. It is difficult to find refuge here. Everything can be made to be seen, and the camera has caught what could be read as a moment of withdrawal from the engineered flow of pedestrian traffic and the surrounding semiotic orders.


Modernity came to be known as a way of life that takes place in public, on sidewalks, in the bustle of crowds. Some of the earliest photographs were street views, and these contributed to this vision of modernity as urban, public, exposed. Georg Simmel proposed that personal, interior, mental life faced a formidable counterpart in the sovereign powers of society and objective, commercial culture.[2] Photography contributed importantly to the pressures that the outside world placed on the idea of an interior, psychological existence. Street photography has a unique ability to draw attention to the dynamic relationship between public and individual, between flow and suspension, and between social flow and commercial culture as these axes inform and structure the lived reality of individual walkers.


Occasionally Wonnacott’s errant camera finds itself at a stop (Ottawa 2010/p. 34, Ottawa 2010/p. 49), and at other times it is caught in and carried along by the mêlée (the pace of the images running from page 56 to page 69 captures this dynamic). As with most things, we only become aware of the conditions of the sidewalk and pedestrian flow when they are interrupted or made to differ from the status quo. Wonnacott’s survey of city streets effects interruptions and punctuations in the homogenous flow of things, either by dwelling on the moment of suspension, or by framing a point of view that itself has been suspended from a predictable order of seeing.


Some images invite the search for a narrative stream or story to motivate the image. Toronto 2011/p. 112 was snapped from chest height and presents a strangely disembodied point of view. This point of view might suggest that the image is, in a sense, without agency or intent. It is at once very particular, and at the same time only one of an infinite number of possible points of view that we can imagine a camera occupying. Perhaps for this reason I find myself imagining more meaning than there may in fact be in the picture. On the right two men stroll, their hands in positions that I interpret as signals of uncertainty, hesitation, or desire. Does the photograph cause me to imagine (desire) the expression of an intimate gesture in the public sphere? Are these my projections? What does this picture prove or establish other than the fact that the camera was there, in that odd place, when this public arrangement came about? As I was wondering about the question of how one should read this picture, I noticed the samosas balanced on a brown paper bag. These were there too.


Jane Jacobs viewed the sidewalk as a complex order where public and private intermingle. The sidewalk evokes the forces of constant change (passage, commercial consumption and renewal), and of continued human presence. Jacobs suggests that the sidewalk includes “a constant succession of eyes”, joining human presence and the infinitude of individual observers, with the masses and society as a whole. “The ballet of a good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations.”[3] Street photography contributes its own succession of eyes, a form of testimony that remains bound to a particular place and a given moment in time.


While Jacobs looks for the rich variety that would qualify sidewalk use, Nicholas Blomley has traced a history of how urban pedestrian space and movement has been regulated and defined. A civic-humanist approach to sidewalks, Blomely argues, is concerned with how regulations and planning restrict access or use of city sidewalks and urban spaces. The over-regulation and gradual removal of sidewalk stalls in the early-twentieth century, for example, was viewed by merchants and social activists alike as infringements on citizenship in general. Municipalities removed commerce from sidewalks to facilitate smoother passage from one interior space to another. Sidewalks themselves, along with regulations against jay-walking and the establishment of regular crossing lights, were strongly influenced by efforts to improve and maximize automobile circulation. The individual became gradually more confined to a designated arterial order.


Municipalities view sidewalks and civic passages as spaces that they hold in trust “for an abstract public.”[4] In this context, along with sidewalk stalls, “vagrancy” (Ottawa 2011/pp. 76-77), protestors (either in fact or otherwise – Vancouver 2010/p. 105), and proselytizers (Ottawa 2009/p. 28) can all be viewed as private infringements on a space designed for the benefit of a whole that has become an abstract value in the tool kits and discourse of municipal planners.[5] The regulation and predictable control of sidewalk use has been called “pedestrianism”, a set of regulatory codes that determine the behavior of individuals on sidewalks and in civic spaces.[6] Merchant associations and capitalism in general benefit, in principle al least, from the effects of pedestrianism since the regulated, unimpeded flow of individuals is viewed as facilitating and increasing the flow of consumers towards goods and services. Movement is a key objective of municipality and business alike, and the abstraction of sidewalks as spaces to be regulated and adorned with commercial signs renders civic space impersonal and alien, and neutralizes individual difference.


In Blomley’s view, pedestrianism is anti-humanist since it depends on a view of urban space into which individuals are required to insert themselves. Pedestrianism is regulative and preserves its independence from the effects of individual agency.[7] They include no consideration of the ethical, moral, or political variety that accompanies social life. Pedestrianism eliminates differences in order to ensure, facilitate and maximize movement and passage from one place to another. Like planters, bollards, and even bus stops, pedestrianism views ‘bodies’ as things, and – preferably – things that move. Necessary Pictures pictures the weighty encounter between a systemic image of the human, and individual passage. The former sometimes looms over the other to beautiful effect: in New York 2009/pp. 4-5 a grainy, enlarged male ideal looks down on the defeated scalp of middle-age male reality. On the other hand Ottawa 2010/p. 3 is an intimate and frank capture that draws attention to the subordination of individual life to social, economic and psychological forces.


The incongruous becomes absurd in Ottawa 2011/pp. 76-77, where the lived reality of the panhandler is accompanied by a text that emphasizes distance and disconnection. At the margins of the sidewalk and below the threshold of reflection promised by sheets of glass, the panhandler is located in a triangular relationship between the bicycle stand and a young man who loiters, perhaps on a break from work. Passage has been caught and suspended here and replaced by a flurry of gestures and reflections, from an errant hand that has entered the frame at right, to a casual and elegantly pointed finger, to the specter of water bottles floating in the glaze.


If bollards and planters are municipal strategies for engineering movement, the storefront is their commercial equivalent. Storefronts are the backdrops of stage sets, attractive enticements and not simply reflective surfaces to be tended to by glaziers and window-washers. We may catch our reflection in the plate glass windows and therein discover ourselves in the theatrical display of goods. This reflection in turn precipitates a reflection on how storefront, panhandler, municipality, and so on, have come to imagine us. And like the commercial street front, the photograph is a flat (but bright!) surface, a visual thing that puts us into relationship with the world as an image, a snapshot.


When Wonnacott returned to the establishment where Ottawa 2011/pp. 76-77 was taken to share the image with the owner, he discovered that his camera had captured a film crew and actors on break. Photography’s ability to convey content and information is limited. It does not allow us to easily draw a distinction between a performance orchestrated by the ideologies of municipal and commercial forces, and the performance of a role imagined by a filmmaker. Necessary Pictures contributes to the imaginary of the urban commercial sidewalk without, however, advancing a conclusion about or judgment of these spaces.


These pictures propose a phenomenology of limits, of thresholds, and of relation (between storefront and sidewalk, inside and outside, public and individual, perception and understanding). While transparent surfaces promise visual access to what lies on the other side, they are frequently interrupted by weather or light, matter or reflection. The glazed surfaces of the commercial sidewalk are the surfaces of modernity, blurring the difference between the space of the individual and the space of capital. In Halifax 2010/p. 13 two older men pass by a dreamscape, a commercial diorama of storefront mannequins and imaginary airiness. Grey and white hair is repeated in cotton clouds which are themselves indexed to the generic heads of mannequins. A patch of blue – the beyond, the behind, the space above the roadways, the source of the relentless sun – is in turn peppered with clouds. Here are three stations, three dimensions, three ages, the one indexed to the other in the “ballet” of passage along the commercial sidewalk: life, dream, reflection.


Similarly, New York 2009/p. 30 confuses the boundaries between points-of-view and location. In the layering of reflections and references this picture becomes, for me, distinctly photographic. Where are those clocks? Where is the here that constitutes a point-of-view? Can I identify with and imagine occupying this point? Layers blend and create a luminous confusion. The storefront bleeds: not a looking glass but a glass that has come to look, to gaze, to glaze, to supplement what is here with the presence of what’s over there.[8]


Or take New York 2009/p. 88-89, a unique capture in this collection. The camera registers a blur as it passes through a threshold between outside and inside. The picture reveals the mechanism’s restrictions in low-light. Here we have a doubling, a repetition of the content of the image in its form: the blur of passage draws attention to the aperture of the doorway and the aperture of the camera, to the process of putting one thing into relation with another. As the camera struggles with the balance between light and time, as it frames and records passage and the inflection of one space by another, this photograph becomes for me, modestly, a photograph about photography.


A crooked view, luminous and bright, and a slight blur.[9]


[1] Walter Benjamin. “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility”, p. 120.  In Walter Benjamin : Selected Writings, Volume 3.  Trans. Edmund Jephcott, Howard Eiland et. al.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002, pp. 101-133.

[2] Georg Simmel. “The Metropolis and Mental Life”, p. 324 and passim. In On Individuality and Social Forms. Ed. Donald N. Levine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971, pp. 324-339. Although the essay was written in 1903, the tension Simmel expresses here still informs our “modern life”: “The deepest problems of modern life flow from the attempt of the individual to maintain the independence and individuality of his existence against the sovereign powers of society, against the weight of historical heritage and the external culture and technique of life.”

[3] Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, p. 50. New York: random House, 1961.

[4] Nicholas Blomley, Rights of Passage: Sidewalks and the Regulation of Public Flow, p. 4. New York: Routledge, 2011.

[5] Blomley, p. 49.

[6] Blomley refers to the Transportation Association of Canada. The TAC offers a prescribed set of basic pedestrian dimensions in their policy document, Geometric Design for Canadian Roads. The TAC advises municipalities and commercial enterprises “on the movement of people, goods and services and its relationship with land use patterns” in urban settings.  See tac-atc.ca, and Blomley, pp. 39-53 for a discussion of “successfully engineered sidewalks.”

[7] Blomley, pp. 110-111.

[8] My thinking here is informed by Jacques Derrida’s work on reflection and supplementarity.

[9] On the photographic blur as an aspect of the ontological condition of photography,, see Raymond Bellour, “The Film Stilled”, Camera Obscura, 24, September 1990, 98-123.