‘The Psychogeography of Cities’: Nicholas Calcott’s ‘City of Salt’ at Gulf and Western Gallery

Untitled, 2011
Untitled, 2011
Untitled, 2010

From a provocative photograph of a woman with thick eyeliner and hair dripping with dye to an abstract shot of an escalator in the London Underground, the works in “City of Salt,” Nicholas Calcott’s new exhibition at New York University’s Gulf+Western Gallery, capture at once the atmosphere common to all cities and the specific people that give each its unique personality.

The show opens with a photograph of an expansive green landscape framing the stocky facade of concrete office buildings. The colors are muted, the subject exceptionally ordinary. While Mr. Calcott’s photographs feature six different cities around the world, it is nearly impossible to discern the setting of each individual image. “A lot of the work was done in Paris but nothing really looks like iconic Paris,” Mr. Calcott, 29, said to Gallerist as we walked through the show. “Because only a relatively small part of the city is iconic Paris.”

Tall and sporting a rugged beard, Mr. Calcott is the recipient of the 2011 Tierney Fellowship, a grant and mentorship program that provides support to photographers at the beginning of their careers. (Notable previous recipients include Sam Falls, Monique Pelser, Francesca Cao and Thomas Bangsted.)  He graduated from NYU in 2005 and soon after decided to move to Paris in search of fresh challenges. With family in both California and London, Mr. Calcott became an expert at long plane rides and urban dwelling.

“I started to see common things among all of these places,” he said as we toured the small, doorless gallery positioned on the first floor of 721 Broadway, home of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

These similarities between cities is underscored by the fact that all of the pieces are untitled. They could depict any city. By capturing the subway station or litter-coated highway that could be present in any urban environment, Mr. Calcott highlights the networks between cities, the features that are present anywhere from Tokyo to Los Angeles. His photographs also focus on transportation systems that literally link cities, providing means for people to shuttle art, technology and other cultural items around the globe—it’s about “the Victorian collecting instinct,” as he puts it.

Mr. Calcott pointed to his photograph of a greenhouse’s interior, which looks upward through the topiary and the gridded glass ceiling. He noted that greenhouses were one sign of the beginning of this collecting instinct—people began accumulating plants and artifacts from around the world and storing them in greenhouses.

“This history of colonialism, in my mind, was sort of the beginning of connections between cities,” he said. “It was to me, in a way, similar to the collecting instinct that you find in networks now. The Internet is this weird collection of oddities, this weird cultural looting from different sources. I mean, benign, mind you, but looting nonetheless.”

Midway through the three-year project, Mr. Calcott looked at his photographs and felt that they looked too empty, too hollow. “The city felt depopulated,” he said, “like there was no one in it.”

To bring life into his cities, he trained his camera on individuals he saw. There is a woman smoking in one; a young man wearing a leather coat as he stares off into the distance in another. “I didn’t just want to photograph the stage, as it were,” he said.

Unlike the landscapes, the photographs’ human subjects are far from generic, featuring wild haircuts and strange make-up. They are the city’s fingerprints, the wild purple lipstick and over-gelled hair that makes London different from Paris and New York different from L.A.

“I began, in my social travels, seeing what started to occur to me as this weird science-fiction city. It’s a kind of Blade Runner-esque environment,” he said. “I was creating the city in my mind and populating it with these weird creatures, essentially.”

Ironically, in an attempt to capture the organic nature of cities, Mr. Calcott focuses on the symbols of the synthetic, technological world—harsh angles and complex grids. One photograph captures a colorful circuitry board, another the sharp peaks of skyscrapers cutting through the clouds. “It looks like a kind of CGI grid, like a Tron thing, but at the same time you see patterns that are not dissimilar from those in lichen and other natural phenomena,” Mr. Calcott said.

What emerges through the photographs, he hopes, is the “psychogeography” of the cities, the different way each person experiences an urban landscape. The show asks, he said, “What creates New York in our minds?”

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