reclaiming the urban memory

the old is new again

“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

Melbourne, Flinders Street Station, 1917 ©2006 BHHC

“100 years from now I wonder if those in the future who view these images will appreciate the value of … pictures as a means of recording life as is lived in this century… photography is in the truest sense biography –is it not the writing of life in a truly universal language?”

-Burton Holmes, Seoul, Korea, 1899

The Great Recession, climate change and the quest for carbon neutrality have reoriented how we look at cities, the distance between home and work, and the role of the automobile.

A simultaneous, street-based nostalgia targets simpler times, a more human scale and an elusive world of accessible neighborhoods often lost in the memories of previous generations.

Melbourne, Flinders Street Station, 2009, evolved as modern transit hub ©2009 myurbanist

Consider imagery which restores such lost urban memories for those who did not witness modern urban history, and recreates what political writer Alexander Cockburn has termed “the lost valleys of the imagination”.

Such “lost valleys” often grace nearby bookstores and online forays, but quality varies, and frustrates our romantic search to turn back time.

Of all available resources, amid blogs and information byways, no visual record is more compelling than the archived work of seldom remembered, but innovative documentary pioneers, who left behind breathtaking records of camera artistry: pictures revealing moments when people hardly understood the camera as it recorded the profound change which surrounded them.

One such pioneer, Burton Holmes, preserved imagery in unparalleled human scale, first with black and white, glass negatives, often hand-colored with fine, single hair ermine brushes and through parallel use of motion pictures from the time of their invention.

He showed all that a city can be—while also depicting the changing form and appearance of infrastructure, public spaces and the impact of this change on urban residents.

Travelogues, the Greatest Traveler of His Time, Ed. Genoa Caldwell

His legendary work, which entertained the captive opera-goers in front rows and the general admission crowds in the rear, is well-chronicled in the work of Genoa Caldwell (The Man Who Traveled the World and Travelogues: The Greatest Traveler of His Time, recently republished as Early Travel Photography), as well as by other devotees, and can be readily reviewed in print and online (including the most resource-intensive compilation at

Holmes was not an intentional urban historian. He became a famous stage presenter, who, from the late nineteenth century until the 1950’s, inherited a showman’s tradition from previous travel lecturers and became synonymous with the new word, “travelogue,” which he favored to stimulate vicarious interest in his art. He brought the first motion picture cameras to the Far East, recorded Tolstoy and the coronation of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie and otherwise roamed the world–often to places of danger where a camera had never been– and brought home both organic, natural portraits of life abroad and entertaining still and cinematic visions to halls across America.

However, over and above Holmes’ published travelogue narratives, a particularly intentional urban documentary purpose flows from his photos, as depicted above and below. Photo-archivist and biographer Caldwell has shared hints of this perhaps subconscious resolve in quotations she has compiled in the over 30 years she has devoted to her research. An example of one reference she has found that holistically describes urban ambiance addresses Berlin in 1907.

Holmes noted Berlin as a city of contrasts, where the traveler feels the unseen presence of something fine and beautiful, and it is cleanliness, he said, that pleads most eloquently for Berlin. There, he described how the art of municipal housekeeping is practiced in perfection: “Berlin is the best-kept great city in the world–there are no backyards in Berlin, [and] balconies filled with flowers ornament the buildings, [while] outdoor cafes give impressions of cheerful sociability, and the traveler is confirmed in his impression that Berlin is a city beautiful.”

Holmes’ cameras captured far more than the order he saw in Berlin; he chronicled the impact of new forms of transportation as they were introduced to classical environments, and the resulting evolution of streets and ways of life.

BeIow is a sampling of the collection maintained by Burton Holmes Historical Collection (BHHC), reprinted by myurbanist with special permission and under copyright of BHHC. Caldwell has archived 1700 of an assemblage which once numbered 30,000 photos, the rest lost to the poor condition of time. A range of movie footage, from 200 film cans rediscovered in 2003, now resides at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York.

a mode we have lost?

A captivating horse and buggy amid Melbourne’s clouds shows a morning routine now lost in Western culture today. Holmes was fascinated by the expanse of the Australian continent and the impact of colonization on native people and place.

Melbourne, 1917 ©2006 BHHC

a mode to regain

A grand Austrian urban stroll provides a model for emulation. Holmes regaled in the “superb edifice” of Vienna’s Grand Opera House, while his camera prioritized the pedestrian view.

Vienna, 1907 ©2006 BHHC

street scenes and carriage jams

Traffic congestion took different forms, often without protection from the elements. Holmes’ photographs were rich with street scenes in world cities. Consider the different social nature of traffic interactions without doors or windows and the different sounds that graced the street.

Paris, 1895 ©2006 BHHC
London, 1897 ©2006 BHHC

the ascent of the car

Early in the last century, Holmes toured Denmark by car. Here, a rare car-sighting south of Copenhagen in 1902 yields to a predominant auto culture on Seattle’s Marion Street by 1934.

South of Copenhagen, 1902 ©2006 BHHC
Seattle, 1934 ©2006 BHHC

gathering places

Note the human interaction in a public place as captured by Holmes in Italy and France, countries he repeatedly visited in times of war and peace. Today’s increasing attention to sidewalk cafes and public gathering spaces attempts to achieve the ambiance of the photographs below.

Florence, 1924 ©2006 BHHC
Paris, 1918 ©2006 BHHC

change in the holy land

Jaffa Gate, in the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, shows the evolution from animal to motorized transport at the sunset of the Ottoman Empire. The Jerusalem chronicled by Holmes is reminiscent of Mark Twain’s narrative in Innocents Abroad.

Jerusalem, 1920 ©2006 BHHC
Jerusalem, 1920 ©2006 BHHC

a town with a purpose

The gold rush town of Dawson City, Yukon Territory was assembled in weeks with all the vitality of an urban place. Holmes’ many photographs there documented a new town built on speculation with a surprising sense of permanence, amenity, and not least of all, sidewalks.

Dawson City, 1903 ©2006 BHHC

the romance of the bicycle past

In Rome and Naples, Holmes captured the function and charm of the bicycle mingling with urban forms.

Rome, 1924 ©2006 BHHC
Naples, 1924 ©2006 BHHC

Holmes’ work offers a central place to rediscover the look and feel of Cockburn’s “lost valleys of the imagination” and provides models to facilitate the regeneration of a classic model of urban life–a full experience shaped not just by where one could drive in a car, but by where one could walk or ride by animal–or access by public transportation. His photographs provide gloss on features to include in new development and the planning of today’s complete streets.

The implications from the photographs are more than academic, as inferred principles of practice for regulation and design emerge. The architect can derive the relation of building and street. The traffic engineer can see inspiration for lanes, surfacing and signage. The lawyer and planner can react to setbacks, and ways to encourage pedestrian spaces while assuring light, air, acceptable noise levels and governance of private use of public spaces.

Perhaps most of all, the child in all of us is transported by time-travel to a fantasy world better than the Wizard of Oz, because the world in the photographs was real and foundational. In the end, the “film as biography” foretold by Holmes in 1899 draws us in, and challenges us to reclaim and relive the best of the city. It is a biography we should read as precedent, both for inspiration and for lessons learned from the consequences of change.

(Please scroll over photographs for credit. Except where indicated, all photographs ©2006 BHHC. Restricted use. Do not copy.)

Republished in Crosscut on September 18, 2010 in edited form, here. Thanks also to Kaid Benfield for republication in his “Village Green” column in The Huffington Post on September 8, 2010, and his Natural Resources Defense Council Blog on September 9, 2010 .

57 thoughts on “reclaiming the urban memory

  1. Pingback: Ken Lo

  2. Pingback: Sonia Melani

  3. Pingback: Jorge Esteban

  4. Pingback: City Girl Writes

  5. Pingback: Archope

  6. Pingback: Marcela E Ramirez

  7. Pingback: The Urbanophile » Blog Archive » Urbanoscope

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.