This article explores the social and urban circumstances that made it possible for Alvin Langdon Coburn, the celebrated American Pictorialist photographer, to turn his camera upon Madison Square in 1912 from the vantage point of the Metropolitan Life Tower, and thus to create the first abstraction of a city viewed from above. The paper defines how the birth of the modern skyscraper-viewer corresponded to a period of urban transformation in New York City between 1890 and 1920. By extrapolating the terms of discourse regarding the skyscraper-viewer that appeared in a range of cultural, industrial, and architectural journals, we are able to discern how periods of social upheaval affect individualism and mass identity, which in turn conditions the way artists and writers define their artistic vision in relation to daily life in the city. This rudimentary discourse on heights and everyday life was later taken up by writers such as Michele de Certeau and Roland Barthes, who wrote about seeing a city from great heights and how this vision creates the illusion of power and knowledge in the observer.
The "Solar Eye" of Vision: Emergence of the Skyscraper-Viewer in the Discourse on Heights in New York City, 1890-1920
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Meir Wigoder; The "Solar Eye" of Vision: Emergence of the Skyscraper-Viewer in the Discourse on Heights in New York City, 1890-1920. Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 1 June 2002; 61 (2): 152–169. doi: https://doi.org/10.2307/991837
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