The FLÂNEUR as Photographer

Collin’s English translation of ‘flâneur’ or the verb ‘flâner’ is simply to stroll, or stroller. This definition is greatly simplified. The French understand it to be so much more. Romanticized by Benjamin and Baudelaire, you get the more poetic Flâneur, who

“has been portrayed in the past as a well-dressed man, strolling leisurely through the Parisian arcades of the nineteenth century – a shopper with no intention to buy […]. Traditionally the traits that mark the flâneur are wealth, education, and idleness. He strolls to pass the time that his wealth affords him, treating the people who pass and the objects he sees as texts for his own pleasure. An anonymous face in the multitude, the flâneur is free to probe his surroundings for clues and hints that may go unnoticed by the others. […] As a member of the crowd that populates the streets, the flâneur participates physically in the text that he observes while performing a transient and aloof autonomy with a “cool but curious eye” that studies the constantly changing spectacle that parades before him. As an observer, the flâneur exists as both ‘active and intellectual’. The flâneur has no specific relationship with any individual, yet he establishes a temporary yet deeply empathetic and intimate relationship with all that he sees – an intimacy bordering on the conjugal – writing a bit of himself into the margins of the text in which he is immersed, a text devised by selective disjunction.”

An interesting read. The Flâneur has been described in more modern times by White, as

“a stroller, a loiterer, someone who ambles without apparent purpose but is secretly attuned to the history of the streets he walks – and is in covert search of adventure, aesthetic or erotic.”

and by Tuffley as

“an idly-rich dandy, who wandered about the streets of 19th century Paris seeking a remedy for the ever-threatening ennui.”
‘Ennui’ being boredom or tedium or a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement.

Am I those things? Do I need to be all those things to be the Flâneur? Am I more than just a ‘stroller’?

As a street photographer, I identify with this concept so well. I wander, I wander to pass the time, looking and searching. I observe the streets, the sights, listen to the sounds, take in the smells, all for a photograph. Sometimes, those photographs do not arrive. But, I have wandered none the less. And I always enjoy it. I love being intimate with the ‘streets’ and its people. Observing. Learning.

I arrived at Flâneur, not on the streets, but at the beach. In and around 2011/12 standing on the shores of the Pacific in Cannon Beach, Oregon, USA, I remember approaching the shoreline. Loving the moment. Making a conscious decision NOT to grab my camera but rather to take the scene in. Take ALL of it in. The Ocean, the skies, the salty air, the sounds of the surf and the rolling waves. Birds flying by and kids screaming from play. It was all good, and I was at peace. And, as I stood there observing I started seeing. Images started appearing before me that I could capture. I pondered this moment and these images for some time and then, I finally reached for my camera.

It may be objective, but I believe that those were some of the best images that I ever captured. Meaningful images. And, moreover as I later found out, were meaningful to others also. I remember heading home days later and searching for what I experienced.

In my research, I first stumbled across the term, ‘tabula rasa’. Blank slate. This was partly it. I approached that ocean, that scene before me with a blank slate. I let the images come to me, not me looking for images. But, there was more to it than the blank mind. I didn’t just look, I took it all in. I observed. I learned. I saw the light, literally, it moved while I watched, the tide was coming in, heard laughter. Continuing my search for what I had experienced, I found in Susan Sontag’s book, “On Photography”

“The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world ‘picturesque.”

That was when I looked up ‘flâneur’ and realized, that’s what I am; no, not the idly-rich, in no way could I be considered financially wealthy, but the stroller that looks and observes and takes in the scene before him. The one that interacts and is part of his scene. And, not only did I do this on the streets, but elsewhere. The ocean, the fields, observing a dog at play before I photograph it. I enjoy that moment ‘before’ the photograph.

Since that moment of realization, I approach ALL my photography with this concept of tabula rasa, but more importantly with the notion of Flâneurism. It has forced me to be more observant, much more, it has opened my eyes and it has slowed me down allowing me to capture the images that I want, how I want them. It has transformed my stoic, direct, clinical, emotionless approach to photography and transformed it into an emotionally based, whimsical, thoughtful, fervent, poetic style of photography.

The flâneur, or the notion of Flâneurism, has changed my life, it has changed who I am as an artist. It was at that time that I chose to take ‘art’ classes again and to go back into the darkroom creating silver prints. I am now exploring other old world processes, including toned cyanotypes. I look forward to getting to my destinations and being the flâneur over again. I now also use this notion when I look at art, when I judge at competitions, when I offer critique; I slow down, I am less technical, I search for the emotion of the image, I look for meaning. Understanding.

“Seeing is not enough; you have to feel what you photograph” – Andre Kertesz

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