Cities of Contrast and Range

May 4, 2014

The shopping area of downtown Detroit.

Copyright 2014 Kevin P. Mick Photography. All rights reserved.

Two important concepts in photography are contrast and dynamic range.  Contrast can be thought of in a couple of ways:  it can be the difference in luminance values (highlights and shadows) and also the differences in hue as represented by the colour wheel.  For example, yellow and blue are across from each other on the wheel and therefore are contrasting colours.  These are fundamental issues in the creation of interesting photographic compositions and so examples can be found throughout photographic works across the different eras.

Canton early on a foggy morning.

Copyright 2014 Kevin P. Mick Photography. All rights reserved.

Dynamic range is the amount of detail that can be held and therefore viewed across a spectrum from the highlights (the brightest areas), through the middle (grey) tones, and down into the shadows (the darkest areas) within a given photograph.

High rises in downtown Detroit.

Copyright 2014 Kevin P. Mick Photography. All rights reserved.

It occurs to me that these same concepts apply to American cities.  For example, much has been written about the demise of Detroit-this blog includes a couple of posts about the recent bankruptcy and the much longer slide toward that current event.

General Motors building near Detroit's waterfront.

Copyright 2014 Kevin P. Mick Photography. All rights reserved.

It is important to recognize that Detroit, like many cities are really studies of contrast.

Abandoned building in Detroit, Michigan.

Copyright 2014 Kevin P. Mick Photography. All rights reserved.

Within most large cities are areas that are doing quite well and represent the re-vitalization of the urban environment, while at the same time are other sections that are posters for urban decay.

Broken staircase in Detroit, Michigan.

Copyright 2014 Kevin P. Mick Photography. All rights reserved.

It is a mistake to use either extreme as a total measure of any city.  In fact, cities have a much greater dynamic range than that represented by such two-dimensional thinking.

Abandoned building in Baltimore, Maryland.

Copyright 2014 Kevin P. Mick Photography. All rights reserved.

While the contrast is striking, the subtle transitions are also an important characteristic and driver of social change.

Those transitional areas are often ones representing the intersection of social and economic pressure.  As areas within the inner city become gentrified, housing prices increase.  As housing prices increase, so do rents and property taxes.  As a result, current residents often find it too expensive to afford and therefore sell their properties or find another place to rent.  Developers buy the vacated properties, renovate them, and in turn sell at a profit to an economic base that can afford the purchase price or rent to those that can afford the new price structure.  This has already happened in parts of Baltimore and is now happening in parts of Detroit.  This does create a dynamic, revitalized inner city. It can also make it difficult to find affordable housing.  Again, the contrast.

Detroit Free Press newspaper announcing deal agreement.

Copyright 2014 Kevin P. Mick Photography. All rights reserved.

Detroit is in the process of figuring out and negotiating settlements regarding the bankruptcy.  This is a story worth following as some of these contracts are just like contrast and the dynamic range:  in order to maximize one area, another may be sacrificed.  With photography, there are some basic and some sophisticated software applications that can be used to markedly alter the look of a photograph after image capture that can expand both contrast and dynamic range.  Sometimes these (over)processed images look nothing like what would occur in nature.

Sunset in Detroit.

Copyright 2014 Kevin P. Mick Photography. All rights reserved.

The important difference is that cities like Detroit are dealing with real people and not images.  There are pre-existing conditions (pensions, for example) and financial realities (current budget shortfalls) with which to contend. The solutions to the problems and the manner in which the state and local governments manage Detroit’s transition will be important markers as other cities face similar issues.  Such an understanding would need to include the history of how Detroit and the larger cultural issues of the U.S. created this situation.

By the way, which of the above photographs are from Detroit and which are from Baltimore?

Take care.

 

 

 

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