John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
French photographers Lucie & Simon have cleansed major cities of their troublesome humanity, creating empty, dread-filled urban landscapes.
When you think of ghost towns, your mind doesn't typically gravitate to New York, Paris, and Beijing. Yet that's what these thriving metropolises have become in the hands of Lucie & Simon, a Paris-based art duo behind the apocalyptic photo series, "Silent World."
Lucie & Simon, who were born without last names to judge from their website, have used a digital scalpel and a special filter to excise the human flesh from city landscapes. They leave just enough evidence of our species' presence – a lone woman in a blood-red coat in Madison Square Garden, for example, or a hoisted flag in Tiananmen Square – to make the mysterious, mass disappearance as eerie as possible.
Many New Yorkers no doubt have dreamed of a magically emptied city, perhaps after a sleepless night caused by loud, carousing NYU kids or after trying to navigate the tourist-clotted sidewalks of Midtown with the determination of an icebreaker. But "Silent World" suggests life would not be so peaceful in a completely silent city. It's unnatural and threatening; as fun as it'd be to climb all the sculptures at MoMa, the uneasy feeling of being the last person on earth could build and build until one goes mad.
Lucie & Simon create these vacuumed-up cityscapes by using a neutral density filter that allows for extra-long exposures, which removes moving objects like people and cars. The fact that the filter is "normally used by NASA for analyzing stars," according to art professor Klaus Honnef, ramps up the alien vibes of "Silent World." Here's Honnef explaining his attraction to the series:
The silence of the world, like a quotation, is suddenly endowed with an oppressive eloquence. Small intrusions are the true sparks here, because their disconcerting presence disrupts the majestic calm of the streets and squares. Are the latter guilty or victims? The fate that governs these shots in a tangible way is not the result of decisions taken by metaphysical powers, but stems uniquely from the imagination of the two creators of these photos, Lucie & Simon.
The photographers have dabbled in these themes for a while. In the mid-2000s, they produced a series called "Earth Vision" that plonked a single person down into an inhospitable urban setting. In this context a woman might look more like a zombie and a glowing bridge shines like the gateway to heaven.
You can view the whole series beginning here, but equally worth a look is this short film set to the music of Philip Glass and Daft Punk. Below it is a video showing a highway in Beijing before and after the artists took a whack at it. Note the nice addition of breathy wind and what could be chimes in the distant aural background:
Top image of New York City's Queensboro Bridge courtesy of Lucie & Simon.