Through the pandemic, with the hustle and bustle on the streets gone, it has often felt like being reacquainted with the physical spaces we live in. When we really stop and look, what begins to emerge is a picture of extremes, and that’s what photographer Daniel Stier has tried to capture in his latest book, A Tale of One City. The project reveals the “simultaneity of extreme wealth and poverty, excess and deprivation”, the “accumulation of capital and good” and the visual chaos within those concrete confines.
Stier began the project unintentionally while working on an ad campaign where he had to find a specific piece of architecture to shoot from a precise angle. The process involved a lot of walking and it was during one walk in London that Stier suddenly saw the city as one gigantic building site. “Just chaos everywhere. I’ve always been fascinated by the visual chaos of big cities but all of a sudden it felt like something more sinister, everything I was seeing was just about buying and selling,” explains Stier. “I felt like I needed to portray the city differently, as an accumulation of stuff driven by economic forces.”
The images in the book have been taken all around London, but you won’t find classic landmarks or tourist snaps, rather Stier has tried to capture a more omnipresent landscape. “It’s not meant to be a book about London. Hopefully there’s something universal about life in big cities,” he says. “I was fascinated by building sites and the random conglomeration of stuff in the street, whether cheap consumer goods or high end displays of luxury accessories. Everything felt the same. Stuff to be sold so people can survive in the city.”
The title of the book is loosely based on Charles Dickens’ novel of a similar name, and the project is a portrait of a city without the people. Luxury goods on pedestals are offset by candy-coloured plastics, and ornate displays of flowers undercut by crumbling brick walls and cardboard shelters. It’s Stier’s way of showing us that, to him, our excessive consumption is what’s given our lives meaning.
“The whole project is about the city as some kind of metabolic system. The city wants our labour value and gives us almost nothing in return,” he says. “The current pandemic has only highlighted a fact that was there all along. It sometimes feels that we can only sit and watch; witnessing constant construction and destruction.”
At first, Stier found it challenging trying to represent an idea that wasn’t quite tangible, and so the process involved him walking with his camera simply looking. “It’s really important to try out new things. Although I have been trained as a documentary photographer I hadn’t walked the streets with a small camera for a long time,” Stier notes. “It was a very liberating and beautiful experience.”
The process of turning the series into a book allowed Stier to reflect on the work he’d created in greater detail and he’s worked with Berlin-based studio Double Standards on the design. The high contrast photos take centre stage, purposely bold, with the accompanying thick black text supporting this. “Taking the pictures is one thing, bringing it together in a coherent book is a different matter entirely. It’s very complex, but everybody knows that,” he says. “It’s a beautiful thing to give yourself time to spend with the images while editing the sequence of the book.”
Writers David Campany and Marvin Heiferman have contributed two essays to the book, which Stier feels adds another layer to the project. “Hopefully people might see the environment they live in, in a different perspective,” Stier says. “We have created the economic system which has shaped the cities as they are, yet it is making our life more and more precarious.” Ultimately for Stier, even as the infrastructure of the city gets stretched physically and socially, he feels there is still a lot of room for change.