Blurring the lines between real life and a digital existence, bluestreets is an urban photography gallery that has more stamps in its virtual passport than most diplomats. Kicking off in early 2015, the agile gallery now has over 200 artists exhibiting their street photography and showcasing their cities on their website and have held physical exhibitions in Cairo, Egypt and Cumbaya, Equador. The brainchild of two budding street photographers Jakob Von Fircks and Roberto Arroyo, bluestreets.org is a gateway to cities near and far, with nearly 300 locations to visit through the lenses of both up and coming and established urban artists on their growing site, providing an artistic and immersive view of urban landscapes and lifestyles from Agra to Zagreb.
“We were searching for ways to bring our passion for street photography to the next level, exhibiting our work and getting in touch with likeminded street photographers,” says Jakob Von Fircks as we meet in Cairo. Quickly realizing that a dedicated virtual space for urban artist didn’t exist on a global scale, he and Roberto Arroyo launched their beta version of the site and found overwhelming feedback from photographers and galleries who grasped the importance of documenting our urban existence. “We strive to democratize art with a different business-model and a unique perspective on photography for a new audience,” continues Von Fircks as we tour a brilliant and strictly black and white exhibition showcasing Tokyo in all its urban glory. “The greatest thing we have achieved is the establishment of a highly talented community of photographers that is showing the world cities in a new light and from a new perspective. Today, more than 200 artists are presenting cities from all around the world in body and soul on bluestreets,” adds Arroyo.
The body and soul of a city is indeed what’s experienced with bluestreets, whether you’re travelling across the globe through their virtual galleries, or in person at the exhibition spaces they choose to display and sell both originals and prints from their roster of photographers. From portraits and stolen moments to the geometry – or lack thereof – of cities, the duo’s curation techniques give a real feel for the urban communities documented, and a sense of lifestyle and how citizens interact with their cities.
“We have developed a very diverse team of photograpers, architects, sociologists and writers that are searching for new artists and curate our exhibitions. The main thing we look for is passion, and then we look for a new point of view; a new perspective. Many cities have been photographed by millions of people, so we are not interested in the glossy, cliché-driven images but want to get to the soul of inspiring urban spaces and the relationship with the humans that live in and shape them,” reiterates Arroyo.
With all the noise in the photography scene today, that’s no easy feat. As social networks flood our feeds with images, thanks to the widespread availability of high-end cameras and editing softwares, not to mention the #iPhoneOnly #InstaCrowd, more and more of the world’s connected populations are snapping away. “Anyone can buy a camera, anyone can take photos… but not because anyone can buy a pen, anyone can be a writer,” quips Arroyo. “To become a good street photographer requires a lot of work. To witness, transmit and show the beauty of urban life is a way of life.”
As street photographers themselves, Arroyo and Von Fircks have travelled the world in search of the perfect picture, and have ended up learning much more about urban development then perhaps they originally intended. “In street photography, there is no clear line between documentary and artistic approaches,” explains Von Fircks about the medium. “I think that outstanding street photography brings the two dimensions together and shows the interaction of people breathing their environment,” agrees Arroyo, and the duo has witnessed much of that through their own lenses. “As cities are a great source of inspiration, art also inspires urban development. Many structural developments inside cities start with the avant-garde creative scene, which has immense influence in creating soulful and inspiring centres,” says Von Fircks on the impact artists, their ideas and their documentation of urban environments have on any given city.
“Two cities that for me are interesting cases of immense urban transformations are Medellin in Colombia and Marseille in France. Both are somehow infamous for their violent past and have in very different ways shown that a mix of social and inclusive economic infrastructure jointly with attracting creative classes can trigger deep rooted change,” he continues. However, bluestreets is very much aware that creative classes can also trigger the much-feared gentrification process, wherein art can harm and drive out a community by attracting high-end companies and pushing up living costs. “From my own experience, I believe that artists and creative communities often play a crucial role in the urban development process and raising attractiveness of neighbourhoods. Although that often results in higher prices in the medium term and a transformation of the local population, I believe that urban transformation are healthy and necessary for the development of cities and much preferred to stagnant segregation and ghetto-building like in the French Banlieues or many American cities,” argues Von Fircks. In run-down, ageing cities, however, the team perceives what many might see as gentrification as a much needed injection of vibrancy. “I spent the last four years in Cairo where the challenges of a megacity without smart urban planning seem to become ever more unmanageable. However, the long-ignored historic Downtown district with outstanding architecture and history is becoming once again the heart of the alternative creative scene and is starting to show promising signs to stop the far progressed decay.”
“I think we need new approached to stop creating isolated ghettos, both for the elites as well as the poor,” agrees Arroyo. “This social segregation is one of the main problems in the urban development in Latin America. Without interaction and public infrastructure that is accessible and attractive for all, fear and hate will always flourish. New cities should be developed on the basis of tolerance, free coexistence and unrestricted mobility for their citizens.” With this in mind, bluestreets has created its own path of mobility for its website visitors and within gallery walls. As we finish up our tour of their Cairo exhibition, one is left with a strange sense of nostalgia for Tokyo; as if we had visited the city and the snaps lining the space were physical manifestations of our fondest memories. Tatsuo Suzuki’s iconic work, especially, stands out as a representation of the fast-paced life in the Japanese capital, with his guerrilla-style portraits particularly striking. Similarly, in their most recent exhibition in Quito’s quaint district of Cumbaya, entitled La Vuelta El Mundo (A Journey Across the World) gave visitors a microcosmic view of 20 cities on six continents all in the space of a complimentary welcome cocktail.
The unprecedented accessibility to understanding through arts the digital age affords us can open up new forms and models of dialogue, collaboration and discovery, both within a city and between cities. “One of the latest photographers that really inspired us is Moisés Rodríguez, a Mexican photographer who reveals the aesthetics of public spaces,” says Arroyo as an example of art as a medium for knowledge on civic life in urban landscapes. With an online store for physical prints and digital licensing coming to bluestreets.org this month, the team is also very aware of the need for artistic practices to be sustainable, much like a city. “We’ll also be hosting two physical galleries this summer in Quito and Marseille,” adds Von Fircks, noting that the latter serves as both his and Arroyo’s muse. “Our love for the French city brought us together in the first place.”