City: Through a lens

Sarah Morris and William H. Whyte both used film to capture the street life of New York City. The former used film as an art form and the latter as a scientific instrument.

April 17, 2017 - 5 minute read -
blog art

Big cities have special rhythms and are perfect for people watching. In The Metropolis and Mental Life, German sociologist George Simmel characterized the rhythm of metropolis as “the swift and continuous shift of external and internal stimuli”. People on the street are the perfect subject for cameras, leaving us with some of the best pictures ever taken, for example, the work of street photographers Vivian Maier and Bandon Stanton (Humans of New York).

Then there are films of people in big cities. In this post, I will put two films side by side, one by American artist Sarah Morris, and the other by urbanist William H. Whyte. As we will see in a second, both films captured the street life of New York City, but with very different intentions—one for expression, the other for drawing conclusions.

Sarah Morris

The film “Midtown” (1998) by Sarah Morris captures and expresses the special rhythm of New York City. Sarah Morris (born 1967) is an American artist living in New York City. She is both a painter and filmmaker. She shot “Midtown” in 1998 in Midtown New York in a single day, which gives you glimpse of typical New York scenes against a backdrop of super dramatic background music. The film (clip included below) included shots such as: bright neon billboards at the Times Square, pedestrians on crowded side-walks, shiny geometric surface of skyscrapers, lone office workers at their desks, people maneuvering the revolving doors gracefully, fashionable lady smoking in elegant heels outside an office building, and lone sitters at the ledge of a fountain.

Sarah Morris: "Midtown"

For Morris, film captured the rhythm of cities and continued to inspire abstract paintings that feature bright color fields and graphic lines. For example, she painted a parallel series of abstract paintings also titled “Midtown”, inspired by the film. You can view the complete series on her website and I’ve also included an example below.

Sarah Morris, Midtown – HBO Grace, 1999, Household Gloss Paint on Canvas, 214 x 214 cm Sarah Morris, Midtown – HBO Grace, 1999, Household Gloss Paint on Canvas, 214 x 214 cm

As an artist, film is not simply a way of capturing the city as is, but instead a way to change the perspective of viewers and selectively emphasize abstract concepts, such as bureaucracy and privacy in Morris’s case. In an interview, Morris said, “I actually think that through observing something, or through appropriating something, you change something”.

Research: Placemaking

Morris’s film “Midtown” is strikingly similar to Willaim H. Whyte’s documentary, Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (1980). Below is a clip from the documentary:

William H. Whyte (1917-1999) was an American urbanist, organizational analyst, journalist and people-watcher. He worked with the New York City Planning Commission in 1969 to investigate the usage of public plazas, using cameras as an the main means of data collection. Social Life of Small Urban Spaces is the result of this study, along with the book published under the same title. These observations eventually lead to the “Street Life Project” and described in Whyte’s later book City: Rediscovering the Center in a more comprehensive manner.

Whyte’s research has made a lasting impact on the zoning law in New York City. Back in 1961, New York embarked on a new incentive zoning, that gave commercial developers bonus floor-area in exchange for the provision of public plazas. The incentive zoning took off, but no one really knows if the public plazas are being used by the public at all.

Whyte took up the challenge to observe the usage of these public plazas. Using time-lapsed cameras and diagrams, he provided first-hand empirical data to show that some plazas were more used than others. These observations resulted in a series of design guidelines for public plazas. For example, there has to be a minimum amount of seating available in these plazas, based on the data collected by Whyte using film. In 1975, these design guidelines were incorporated into New York Zoning law as an amendment to the original 1961 incentive zoning law.

We owe Whyte some respect at least every time we sit down at a plaza in New York City where there is ample seating. And personally, every time I sit at the Bryant Park, which Whyte helped restore, I feel very thankful.

Closing Thoughts


Morris and Whyte both used camera to capture the street life of New York, but one as an artist, and the other as an urbanist. The artist has in mind the intention of directing our attention to the rhythm of city, and the over-arching concepts that she tries to emphasize—bureaucracy. But for Whyte, the goal of making the film is for recording data truthfully, and for understanding the characteristic of public spaces that lead to successful plazas.

The difference between Morris and Whyte becomes more apparent in the derivative output of these films. For Morris, graphical paintings followed the film; but for Whyte, the output was design guidelines that were absorbed into the law and therefore influenced how future plazas were built.


However, there is poetry in both Morris and Whyte’s work. Morris’ film is cut in a way the the music is in sync with the switching between different shots. You can almost feel the pulse of the city. And for Whyte, he recorded pedestrian behaviors using diagrams that are almost like music scores. For example, the following digram depicts the number of people sitting at the Segram’s plaza in a day, from dawn to dusk.

Whyte, William H., City: Rediscovering the Center, Doubleday, 1988.

If this is not enough to convince you that there is romance in Whyte’s seemingly dry data, here is his description of people watching at the Grand Central.

Stand on the Balcony overlooking the main floor of Grand Central. At left, with three of the four escalators heading down, there is a mass of people going the same way. But only for a moment. They split into an infinity of directions. Some swirl around the information kiosk clockwise, some counterclockwise. Hundreds of people will be moving this way and that, weaving, doing, feinting. Here and there someone will break into a run. Almost everyone is on a collision course with someone else, but with a multitude of retards, accelerations, and side steps they go their way untouched. It is indeed a great dance. [p.67] – Whyte, William H., City: Rediscovering the Center

It is indeed a great dance.

Art + HCI: I am writing a series of articles connecting ideas from art with research in HCI and social computing.

Previously in this series:


  1. Simmel, Georg. “The metropolis and mental life.” 1903.
  2. Sarah Morris
  3. Art Review, Feature Sarah Morris
  4. Whyte, William H., City: Rediscovering the Center, Doubleday, 1988.