One of my favorite activities is wandering aimlessly in an unfamiliar city. I’ll park my car or get off the subway in a neighborhood that seems to have some life and just start walking — no destination in mind, no searching the iPhone for nearby attractions. I often miss out on a city’s iconic landmarks and postcard views, but these walks along back ways and side streets help me understand the city as its own complex organic entity, shaped by design and circumstance, the material and the cultural, the permanent and the provisional.
Arturo Soto, a photographer living in Mexico City, has taken a similar approach in his series “Blind Views” and “When the Time Comes.” In photographs of Mexico City, Panama City, El Paso, New York, Chicago and other major cities, he avoids big, recognizable views, focusing instead on the distinctly unremarkable spaces of ordinary life, where physical form is determined by patterns of everyday use and the accumulation of individual actions, perhaps more than by formal planning or design. These spaces are rich in what Soto calls an “amalgamation of cultural signs that make up the visual infrastructure of the street.” The implicit markers of place — colors of paint, materials and techniques of construction, widths of streets and sidewalks, the kind of vegetables outside a market — provide clues to the character of these places and the life they hold, even if we can’t pinpoint their precise location. Soto’s photographs make us look closely at physical details and allow us to find significance and small moments of beauty through the lens of our subjective experience.
At their most basic level, cities are places where people have gathered to live. It makes sense, then, that a city’s identity would be embedded in the stuff of everyday life. As Soto writes, “Sometimes the minutia of our lives reveals a human dimension that is otherwise hard to grasp.”
If you would like to comment on this article, or anything else on Places Journal, visit our Facebook page or send us a message on Twitter.