Sprawl and the City

“Broad Street, Lagos Island, Lagos, Nigeria.” Photo courtesy the artist.
“Broad Street, Lagos Island, Lagos, Nigeria.” Photo courtesy Martin Roemers.

BY NORMAN BORDEN | “Metropolis” is the culmination of Martin Roemers’ long-standing interest in documenting the growth of megacities — urban areas with populations of more than 10 million inhabitants. Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, and the United Nations predicts that by 2050, the number will grow to nearly 70 percent.

The idea for photographing megacities came to Roemers when he was in Mumbai in 2003. He realized that despite all of the energy and chaos, nobody seemed to mind the crowds or lack of personal space. He said, “The smells, the noise, the crowds of people; that was actually the first inspiration for this work.”

In undertaking this project, Roemers asked himself: How do individuals manage to live, or survive, in crowded, stressful megacities like Mumbai and Beijing? He wondered whether cities can cope with all the newcomers, and if there’s enough infrastructure and housing. His aim was to capture in a single panoramic image the essence of life in these megacities and show that their growth is the consequence of economic migration. He said, “A city is a magnet for people. It’s a center of economy, so it’s an opportunity to find jobs and make money.”

In 2007, Roemers began traveling around the world to document the impact of global urbanization on people and places. By 2015, he had been to 23 megacities, including Mumbai, Lagos, Nigeria, Tokyo and London. Sixteen of his colorful, compelling images are now on view at Anastasia Photo.

He captures the realities of daily life in these large detail-filled photographs by showing blurred crowds of humanity co-existing with non-stop traffic of all sorts, surrounded by chaos and tumult. The artist said, “The more chaos, the better it is for me.”

Still, all the chaos and dynamism belies the methodical process and techniques that Roemers uses to take the photos.

Before he arrives in a city, he finds a local assistant/fixer who knows the area and understands what he’s looking for. “Before my arrival, we make a list of possible locations, and once I’m in the city, we visit every one and see if there’s an elevated vantage point.”

It’s this point of view combined with time exposures of two to four seconds that allows Roemers to visualize the energy, chaos and sensory overload that’s part of urban life.

He said, “I am shooting the city as a spectacle, and there should be a balance between static and moving elements. While shooting, I am constantly waiting for things to fall into place. I watch the people and movement of the traffic; sometimes I can anticipate it because I know that every two minutes there’s a bus or a tram coming and people have to wait before they cross the street. At the moment when all objects fall into their place, I push the release button. And that’s why these images are really filled up — you see elements in every corner.”

A good example is the image “Madan Street and Lenin Sarani, Chandni Chowk.” It’s the Kolkata, India street crossing where taxis and rickshaws are forced to stop for the tram that the photographer knew passed by every five minutes. Roemers says it’s a waiting game and in this case, he waited at that location for two days until all the elements came together and the corners were filled. The long exposure captures the tram whizzing past as a blur with the taxis, rickshaws, and pedestrians standing still as counterpoint; the energy is palpable.

His choosing to wait two days underscores the challenges Roemers faces shooting each image. He said, “I can only follow five or six elements. When I expose, I’m never quite sure these elements will be on the film since so much can change in two or four seconds.” He doesn’t really know what he shot until he develops the film. Even then, he keeps seeing new details every time he looks at a large print. For example, in the 57×70 inch print, “New Market, Dhanmondi, Dhaka, Bangladesh,” dozens of men sit idly on the ledge that effectively frames the bustling market below where vendors and shoppers conduct business; the combined blur of light bulbs, motor scooters and rickshaws add dynamism. Take a closer look at the print, and other details and elements will emerge.

“New Market, Dhanmondi, Dhaka, Bangladesh.” Photo courtesy the artist.
“New Market, Dhanmondi, Dhaka, Bangladesh.” Photo courtesy Martin Roemers.

When Roemers was searching for suitable locations in Lagos, Nigeria to photograph, his local fixer/assistant led him to a site under an overpass used by Muslim taxi drivers for Friday prayers. Apparently, the mosques are so crowded on Fridays that some people pray on the street. The image, “Broad Street, Lagos Island, Lagos, Nigeria,” reveals how people adapt and have a spiritual moment in the midst of a crowded, congested city. The photographer shows the drivers surrounded by their parked taxis, with the split roadway overhead serving as a strong graphic element — the image is filled with details, corner to corner.

With “Metropolis,” Roemers has literally elevated the cityscape to another level and dramatically captured the chaos of urban life. Acknowledging the impact of his work, National Geographic published several images in its March 2017 issue, but seeing the work up close at Anastasia Photo will have its own rewards.

On view through April 26 at Anastasia Photo (143 Ludlow St., btw. Stanton & Rivington Sts.). Hours: Tues.–Sat., 11am–7pm (temporarily closed through March 30). Call 212-677-9725 or visit anastasia-photo.com.