In 1955, the French theorist, writer, and filmmaker Guy Debord defined the term psychogeography as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.”1 The art that charges our imaginative sense of place conveys not only a story but also a rhythm of life—a convergence of personalities, ambitions, and attitudes that could only have taken place there and then—traces of which rise off the changed, sometimes unrecognizable streets decades later. It is why, despite George Gershwin’s intent for Rhapsody in Blue to be heard as a “musical kaleidoscope of America,”2 his composition became associated with and still evokes New York, a city whose glories and debacles have become synonymous with the American Dream. It is also why, in the din of Paris cafés, one can imagine oneself a reveler in Hemingway’s A Movable Feast and why the term Dickensian is still used as shorthand to describe the peculiar squalid charm of London’s old working-class neighborhoods. The artists who limn the embedded myths of our cities are master interpreters of psychogeography, the profound and nuanced influence of place upon person.
The monograph Everything Is Its Own Reward (City Lights Publishers)—the artist and writer Paul Madonna’s continuation of his popular San Francisco Chronicle weekly series, All Over Coffee—actually includes images of other cities (Buenos Aires, Rome, Paris), but it initially feels like San Francisco’s book, both in focus and in spirit. Even though Madonna’s ink-and-wash drawings depict a city without people or cars (and it is not typical that one can paint a successful portrait of a place without some attention to its people), his empty streets are nevertheless rich with signs of life and psychic resonance. Madonna captures the kind of serenity with which San Francisco seems perpetually blessed and that other cosmopolitan cities only evince in the very early morning. This strange illusory relief from the usual urban neuroses is one reason that people continue to fall in love with San Francisco when they visit and that compels them to stay, even after the illusion has been recognized as such. (continue reading)