Reviewed by Mike Mosher
Some Cities is a book of photographs with cultural criticism. The 224-page trade paperback is mostly pictures, with about two dozen pages of text, written in a clear explanatory style, and with a class consciousness comparable to John Berger. The book is reminiscent of Berger's 1960s and 1970s collaborations with Swiss photographer Jean Mohr.
The photos are mostly simple black-and-white shots of landscape vistas, empty streets, passing crowds. One of Burgin's brief photo essays explores the erotics of people-watching on the streets of London. Another looks at Blois' clearly defined old town (medieval and moneyed) and new town (full of youth and immigrants), bifurcated by the railroad line parallel to its river. Burgin turns his attention to San Francisco, first offered up to his eyes mysteriously in Alfred Hitchock's 1958 movie "Vertigo" and then in a visit two decades later. A still from Hitchcock's film, one of a woman walking in a corridor, is repeated seven times to delineate sections of the book. Burgin compares San Francisco to Marseille, and he discusses how the French port is historically tied to colonial trade with North Africa and mirrored in some ways by Algiers across the Mediterranean. Burgin might have then compared San Francisco to neighboring Oakland, for in two photographs he shows the Bay Bridge that links those two cities.
In some cases the written texts are frustratingly brief notebook asides, like a comparison of University of California -- Santa Cruz, where Burgin teaches in the History of Consciousness program, to the bucolic extraterrestial memory-generated island in Tarakovsky's movie "Solaris". One would like to see this trope developed to range through many universities, as isolated communities of scholars, to heavily-commuter (San Francisco State University) urban American and European public colleges and universities...but this doesn't seem to be the way Burgin, terse and economical with words, likes to work.
Burgin grew up in the English steelmaking city Sheffield, to which he returns to finds it lost and meaningless without its steel industry, become in its own way as rootless and provisional as the village of Stromboli that sits nervously beside a smoldering volcano. To photograph the remains of an 1870s iron waterwheel on Tobago provokes his indignation at working class displacement by re-development during the Reagan and Thatcher governments of the 1980s. It seems Burgin's thoughts are back in cloudy Sheffield as he adjusts his camera to the tropical sun.
Conservative government policies of the past three decades have shifted tax resources from cities to suburbs and beyond. Amidst the succession of urban images surrounding me, I read Some Cities over a twenty-four hour stretch that began in a small rustbelt city now trying to redefine itself from a lumbering, ship- and auto-building industrial past into arts- and culture-driven tourist development. It ended in an expensive university city of diverse bookstores and movies and alfresco cafes blooming in the verdant summer. Yet in transit between the two, we ate dinner at the rural edge of Flint, Michigan, whose post-industrial torpor is visible in several Michael Moore documentaries.
While waiting for dinner, I glanced at a USA TODAY article that wrote of John Sperling's theory of America's division into Retro vs. Metro states, and how the Democratic Party must affirm the metropolitan values of urbanism, multiculturalism and a manufacturing-based economy to win presidential and congressional victories. More critical examinations -- like those of Burgin, Mike Davis, Gray Brechin, James Brooks and Chris Carlsson –- are necessary to the democratizing process of cities, large and small, that have the potential to nurture and enact progressive agendas in North America, Europe and around the globe.
Some Cities is out of print, so check remainder tables and used bookstores.
The www.retrovsmetro.org explains Retro v. Metro.
Published by University of California Press, 1996.