An Ode to the City Symphony (so to Speak)

The ferry arrives in the opening moments of Manhatta.

The most interesting periods of documentary history are the transition periods of adopting and adapting new technologies. The late 1800s saw the Lumiere brothers’ cinematograph capturing and projecting moving images from the backpack-size device.

The 1930s saw the experiments with spoken words on the soundtracks. Sometimes they were recorded on location, but more likely they were recorded in a studio and dubbed in later.

Perhaps the most cited era, the 1960s saw a convergence of technologies enabling lighter, quieter cameras and synchronous sound, thus seemingly allowing access to more intimate spaces than before and capture of more spontaneous moments.

More recently, animation techniques, interactive technologies, and augmented reality technologies have proven fertile grounds for further experimentation.

One of the more intriguing eras for me was the 1920s and the experiments with editing — Dziga Vertov, in particular. His montages in Man with a Movie Camera create a precise, poetic world through image juxtaposition and pacing.

This montage style inspired others in documentary and fiction. From documentary in this era emerged the city symphony. As the name suggests, the city symphony combines images of metropolises with orchestral music toward providing a snapshot of these urban locales, which still were somewhat new even then.

Beautiful framing of this bridge in Manhatta.

Along with Man with a Movie Camera revealing multiple Russian cities, other famous city symphonies include Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (1927), Etudes sur Paris (1928), and Rien que les heures (1926). My favorite from this genre and era is Regen (Rain, 1929), by Joris Ivens. The shadowed bike against the puddle is one of the more famous documentary images.

During a visit to the Minneapolis Institute of Art recently, I found a piece of this documentary history tucked to the side of one of the exhibits. Showing in a tiny booth with seats for a few was Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand’s Manhatta (1921). The about 10-minute short ran on a loop.

Manhatta is one of the first city symphonies. Its images show the modern city of Manhattan, including the skyscrapers, the city streets, the ferry, bridges, railyards, and other aspects of urban life. Some intertitles borrow from Walt Whitman, enhancing the poetic feel of the piece.

As much as Manhatta is about locations in the city, it is also about the people in the city. They crowd onto the ferry, stepping off en masse after the gate releases. Individuals walk the sidewalks of a cemetery, while others contemplate grave markers from the benches. They walk on bridges and streets. Workers build the next skyscraper, with shots starting close on them and moving further back, shrinking them against the city’s dominating skyline.

Almost everyone, even children, wears a hat. Why don’t we wear hats anymore?

A worker helping construct the next spire in the skyline.

The skyscrapers offer a sight to behold. A title reads, “High growths of iron, / slender, strong / splendidly uprising / toward clear skies.” A camera perched on a roof slowly scales down the tall skyscrapers toward the shorter buildings below. Another shot almost lovingly pans up a tall building. In most of the images, the camera remains still, thus making the few instances of camera motion even more pronounced.

These thematically organized images offer a portrait of the city that almost feels timeless. Some visual elements certainly date the images, including the cars and the clothing styles, but they almost feel like today’s city as well, with their crowds, construction, views, and activities.

Overall, Manhatta was a neat find within the museum. It was nestled in a modern exhibit that included painted walls and framed images that blended seamlessly, and, perhaps, timelessly.