Tag Archives: photography

visualising urban change

Last month, I taught three lectures on urban change as part of an introductory module for first year social science students. We discussed how global economic processes impact on urban planning decisions, and we considered gentrification, suburbanisation, and the role of both tourism and recession in relation to the development of a city. We ended on a discussion about ways in which city dwellers can redefine their sense of place, and looked at examples such as urban farming, allotments and graffiti. While we focussed mostly on Dublin, we also examined other cities in transition such as Detroit and Havana.

However, the reason I include a post about this module on the blog is that we also considered research methods for documenting, exploring and understanding urban change. You could look at some statistics. Or a map. You could examine policy or literary accounts.

Or, you could use visual methods. Which is what we did.

As part of us working through the ideas covered in class, I asked the students to go on a ‘photowalk’, and take pictures of examples of places where they saw evidence of the processes we had discussed in class. We got some great results, and in the last class we practiced ‘reading’ photographs by using the students’ images as examples.

I think they enjoyed it. I certainly did.

Great news for analog lovers

Kodak decide to keep their film production alive. At least for now.
Details at the British Journal of Photography

Like cycling barefoot

So, I have been musing about the deeper meaning of this Eroica thing. You know, that vintage bicycle event, where people of all ages, genders and fitness levels dress up in retro gear and haul themselves and their outdated steel frame machines up and down the gravelly hills of Tuscany – for no apparent prize or reward whatsoever.

An email from one of the participants put things in perspective for me. Elena, pictured below, explained that she carried with her, for the full 135 km, her first set of skis from her childhood. Apparently she grew up in the foothills of the Alps, and when she was small her parents used to cycle to the ski resorts. This, I guess is where she got her lasting love of all things naturey – she now runs an outdoor-activity-holidays business for a living.

But, back to the skis at L’Eroica. Although small in size they can only have made the ride more difficult for her, they served no purpose on the day, and yet she deliberately brought them along. Now, why would she do that? And why have been finding myself thinking about restoring my grandmother’s bike from 1958 to take part in the race next year? (This borders on insanity, as the bike has no gears and weighs half a tonne, right?) In fact, why would anyone, in their right frame of mind, not choose a modern, comfortable, lightweight bike, and cycle it on decent concrete roads? What made 4,000 people choose to do things the hard way on Oct 2nd this year?

Well, let’s consider for a moment who else voluntarily puts themselves through such ridiculous hardships. Mountain climbers. Arctic adventurers. Sometimes humans engage in practices that seem to contradict our basic needs for comfort and survival. There are, of course, emotional rewards in doing something difficult, in challenging yourself and succeeding. Getting to the mountain top. Reaching the North Pole. Such feats bestow upon the person the right to feel pride, and often a higher level of status as compared to us mere mortals who prefer to explore mountains via the telly.

But, what strikes me about L’Eroica is not just the voluntary suffering. It is also the treasured objects, the childhood skis, the jersey worn by the rider’s father twenty years ago now resurrected by the son. Any of the vintage bicycles that were used on the day. Painstakingly and carefully restored, the bikes are clearly precious to their owners, imbued with meanings and values that someone outside the vintage bicycle community might not immediately ‘get’. They are magical objects, sacred totems, as Durkheim would say, and riding them, wearing them, or carrying them with you through the heat and dust, allows you to connect with something out-of-the-ordinary. It transports you away from everyday life, to another realm, where past and present collapse into something simpler. Where your entire being is focussed on getting up the next hill, to the next checkpoint, to the finish line.

I think of L’Eroica as a modern form of pilgrimage. No longer tied to any creed or religious organisation, it is a spiritual ritual in is simplest form. There is you. And the bike. And perhaps a magical object or two, to help you invoke whatever values or memories you have invested in them.

For Durkheim, religious ritual held society together. Here, it creates in the participants a feeling of belonging to a community, even though it is a temporary one. I discussed that in my last post. But it also sets the ‘heroic’ vintage riders apart from their contemporary counterparts with their light carbon frames and aerodynamic helmets. It reinforces in them particular values and ways of being. It is an annual ritual that celebrates the past and allows participants to step back into it, away from the individualism, consumerism and competitiveness that characterise life in the present. To enter a time when hard work, beautiful craftsmanship and participation counted more than coming first. When all that really mattered was getting up that dusty hill.

More pictures here.

We could be heroes…

You will forgive me my recent silence, no doubt, with the start of term, new modules, oh, and a little trip to Italy at the beginning of October to witness L’Eroica, the annual event that celebrates the golden age of ‘heroic’ cycling.

For a few days each autumn, the small village of Gaiole in Chianti is transformed by an event which encompasses the town, surrounding villages, and everyone in the community, as 4,000 cyclists and their families arrive for the weekend. A vintage bicycle ride takes place partly on ‘white’ gravel roads, where Fausto Coppi and other Italian cycling legends once practiced their skills. Participants at L’Eroica must ride a bicycle made prior to 1987, and all components must be original to the bike or at least to the era. They choose between four routes: 38km, 75km, 135km or a near impossible 205km.

I was amazed at the wide range of different ages and nationalities of all those riders who became transformed, by wearing old cycling gear, into ‘heroes’ of the past. However, it is more than vintage tops and retro caps that gives this group their collective identity: They are united by a set of values, such as dismissing the mass-produced, throw away commodities of the fast-paced present, a belief in preserving the tools and craftmanship of the past (the bikes have been beautifully restored), and an approach to sportsmanship that values hard work and effort above individualism: At L’Eroica there is no price for coming first, rather, anyone who manages to complete his or her chosen distance is considered a winner. The feeling of togetherness comes not just from practicing the same sport, but from mutual support and assistance at roadside tire changes or a push up a hill by those who are suffering the least. Such values are enacted and embodied by the cyclists on the day of the race where – this year in a gruelling 28 degrees celsius – they start cycling at dawn, not to return until late in the afternoon or early evening.

I took some pictures of riders and their bikes as they returned and crossed the finish line after a day of heroic cycling. More pictures here