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Street Life: Photographing the City

A Summer Workshop with Leslie Grant and Sam Hoolihan
July 31, 2017

Professor of Urban Forestry Gary Johnson

Professor of Urban Forestry Gary Johnson
Professor of Urban Forestry Gary Johnson gives a tree-focused tour of the Mississippi River Basin

Looking at the work of photographer Leslie Grant and filmmaker Sam Hoolihan side by side, it immediately becomes apparent why they would choose to develop a course together. Though Grant works primarily with still images and Hoolihan works primarily with moving images, they share a subtle touch, a sense of intimacy with the people and places they capture, and a warm curiosity & willingness to explore both the familiar and the unfamiliar.

Architect Alex Terzich
A skyway tour with architect Alex Terzich

In describing their new summer workshop course, they speak about the study of Psychogeography, the ways that we subjectively experience our environment, shaping it ourselves through how we interact with the spaces we inhabit and how we think about them. They are also influenced by Guy Debord and the Situationists, who positioned themselves against the idea of “urban planning,” refusing to go along with institutionalized, restrictive notions of how shared spaces should be traversed and utilized.

It’s far too easy to spend the day sucked into the screen of your phone or laptop, essentially oblivious to the details of the world around you, whether that means the cracks in the sidewalk, the faded signage on corner convenience stores, or the quotidian rhythms of pedestrians and commerce on a given city block. Both Grant and Hoolihan are inspired by the cityscape right outside the doors of the University of Minnesota, and have treated this summer workshop course as an opportunity to inspire and encourage their students to explore their immediate surroundings with a sense of intention, awakeness and awareness.

In preparing for the course, Grant and Hoolihan dug into the public archives, particularly the Hosmer Collection at the Downtown Branch of the Minneapolis Public Library. They were especially inspired by the library’s stereograph collection, which presents vivid, 3D portraits of street life from another era.

They also called upon the expertise of non-artists from around the university and the broader community, including Penny Petersen, who wrote a book called Minneapolis Madames about the city’s historical Red Light District, with whom they visited the one remaining building that once housed a brothel downtown. They also took a tour of downtown skyways and discussed their socioeconomic significance by architect Alex Terzich, and examined past and present tree life along the Mississippi River with Professor of Urban Forestry Gary Johnson.

Presented in an experimental workshop format only four weeks long, the course seems almost over before it has begun, with students only a few weeks in already putting together their final projects.

Student Prints
A student shares work-in-progress with professors Grant and Hoolihan

One student is working on a photo series documenting the remnants of signage from old corner stores in their rapidly gentrifying Northeast Minneapolis neighborhood. Another is focusing on a single abandoned building next to their apartment, and the residents who were evicted from it before it is torn down. A third is studying their street through the eyes of disabled pedestrians, focusing on accessibility and looking at sidewalks in a new way.

Hoolihan speaks of the importance of settling yourself down and approaching photography with a sense of intention and stillness, inspired by a passage from renowned photographer Minor White:

“Be still with yourself until the object of your attention affirms your presence.”

Grant summarizes:

“The point is to practice staying curious, as a value – rather than setting out with a goal in mind, trying to remain open to your experience, to what you see, to letting it happen. Our default today is to explore through Google Maps, but what happens if you take that away and give yourself permission to wander?”