When Cory J. Popp drops a new video, it gets picked up quicker than a twenty-dollar bill on an empty SEPTA platform.
There are Philly artists who would give limbs to have their work signal-boosted by so many news outlet across the city. (Technical.ly has shared both Popp’s videos and his views on viral photography.) You can’t buy the type of advertising that his stuff gets for free. And if you want to know why, just look at his newest timelapse video, “Philadelphia In Motion,” which he published earlier this week.
It’s a feel-good skyscraper dreamscape set to an epic instrumental song that could double as a B-side on the next Rocky soundtrack. It’s 10,000 frames of Center City porn, from the roiling waters of the Schuylkill River to the hum of traffic as seen from 50 stories up, all impeccably edited and shot in crisp HD. Like Popp’s lush blizzard footage from last year, Philadelphia In Motion evokes a kind of present-tense nostalgia for its subject. Like, oh, here’s the endless, gorgeous city you forgot you lived in. The one you see evolve from I-95 after a long trip out of town. You can feel good about this city, it seems to say.
And I want to say there’s nothing wrong with that.
I suspect that Popp’s Philly isn’t so much the city Philly believes it is deep down. Rather, it’s the one the city feels guilty about being because we know better.
Because we — and by we, I can speak only for journalists and Philly.com commenters — spend the bulk of our waking hours grousing about what doesn’t make us feel good in this city. The Schuylkill River is flanked by dirty CSX trains. The Toll Brothers would, given the chance, make condos out of all these architectural gems. And the traffic is not soothing; the traffic has an attitude. Do not forgot when Bill Allen, lead engineer of the Schuylkill Expressway, in response to criticisms that he had brought an undriveable hell-sent demon into the city, told Philadelphians, “If you don’t like it, don’t drive it.”
Philly has a well-documented inferiority complex and it’s had it since forever. Google actually just auto-completed the phrase “Philadelphia inferiority complex” for me. God, have I searched for this before already? Or have my fellow Philadelphians already searched this for me? Either way: Cue the self-loathing, hoagie people. I suspect that Popp’s Philly isn’t so much the city Philly believes it is deep down. Rather, it’s the one the city feels guilty about being because we know better. Because we know what we’re seeing is only a few pixels of the big picture.
Maybe it’s too easy to criticize Popp’s videos for focusing on the nice things. Popp has mastered our glamour angles. Nonetheless, our current political moment is one in which the disparity between Philadelphia’s mostly poor neighborhoods and its ultra-invested downtown actually carries some weight. And with that comes a knee-jerk attitude toward anything that focuses on the city’s postcard aspects. Enough with skyline shots. Do not retweet.
But that criticism requires a look in the mirror, too. What photography or videography goes viral from Strawberry Mansion or the Badlands? What stories do we read most about Haddington and Germantown and North Central and lower Southwest Philadelphia? Hint: It’s mostly tragedy.
We love our blight porn as much as we love our skyline porn. Some of my favorite Philly photographs — see Jeffrey Stockbridge’s “Kensington Blues” and Dick Swanson’s contributions to the “Documerica” project — trade in exactly this aesthetic. The dust of shuttered schools. The blocks that blighted themselves. The gritty street life of the demi-monde. To his credit, Popp has a well-done trio of videos called “Wastelands,” which highlights abandoned buildings from an urban explorer’s perspective.
Can the middle ground go viral? I asked Popp. To his credit, some of his less-viral stories have tried to strike a middle ground, even if it remains in the positive light.
“Many of my stories show the lives of real Philadelphians (Philly Dragon Boats, Philly’s Breakdancing Family, From Prison to Playground) and I really love depicting them as the fascinating, talented people that they are,” he wrote via email. “These are all part of the ‘pretty’ Philadelphia, as you put it, which I don’t think the evening news does a good enough job representing.”
Further to his credit, Popp gives back to other artists. He has a series of videos profiling local photographers. Though there are only two videos in the series — Chris Robinson and Albert Lee — both subjects have a similar penchant for big skyline shots and hard-angled street photography.
At the end of the day, he’s only one artist — with a wife and baby to support, to boot — and there’s only so many stories he can afford to take on. The bright side is his labor of love. And perhaps we should channel Bill Allen: if you don’t like it, don’t watch it.
Popp’s work promotes both a sense of pride that I suspect not all Philadelphians have in the city. But it also combats an image about the city that, in many ways, still lives on in the minds and hearts of people both in and outside the city limits.
“I think the reason why my videos are popular is because Philadelphia is known around the country as being dirty and dangerous, but many of the people who actually live here love their city and reject that message,” Popp says. “They’re proud to live here and my videos give them an opportunity to really channel that pride and share it with others.”
At a networking event or a job interview, I might agree with this sentiment. But walking home alone at night or stooped in a late-night conversation with a good friend, I’d say this is what the news stories so rarely convey and what art can far better reveal for us — that many Philadelphians share a city in name only.