Flânerie

Vivian Maier
Vivian Maier, Self-Portrait, 1950s
The photographer inserts herself in the street scene

I hesitate to call this street photography, for I attend to interiors as well as exteriors, and to Nature as well as to urban spaces, which are the proper visual field of the flâneur. Nonetheless, I take pictures with the stance of the flâneur, gazing at the world from an aesthetic distance, considering it with detached curiosity, mindful of the geometric balance of the composition as much as the human or social reality depicted. This attitude is best described by Susan Sontag in her essay, On Photography (1973):

Social misery has inspired the comfortably-off with the urge to take pictures, the gentlest of predations, in order to document a hidden reality, that is, a reality hidden from them.

Gazing on other people’s reality with curiosity, with detachment, with professionalism, the ubiquitous photographer operates as if that activity transcends class interests, as if its perspective is universal. In fact, photography first comes into its own as an extension of the eye of the middle-class flâneur, whose sensibility was so accurately charted by Baudelaire. 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.”

The flâneur is not attracted to the city’s official realities but to its dark seamy corners, the neglected populations–an unofficial reality behind the façade of bourgeois life that the photographer “apprehends,” as a detective apprehends a criminal.

This is best exemplified by photographers I admire: André Kertész and Henri Cartier-Bresson, celebrated by Roland Barthes in his essay, La chambre claire (trans. Camera Lucida, 1980), and the recently unearthed outsider artist, Vivian Maier, a Chicago nanny who roamed the North Shore on her spare time, documenting its street life.

Perhaps this may be more aptly called iPhone photography. The smartphone camera, with its handy portability, enables the opportunistic flâneur to capture what Cartier-Bresson calls the “decisive moment.”

The creative act lasts but a brief moment, a lightning instant of give-and-take, just long enough for you to level the camera and to trap the fleeting prey in your little box.

Derriere la Gare Saint-Lazare, 1932 Meudon, 1928
Left: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Derriere la Gare Saint-Lazare, 1932
Right: André Kertész, Meudon, 1928

Spontaneity comes from the fleetingness of the moment, but also, as Kertész explains, from the instinctual eye of the photographer, that split-second recognition of the photographic composition:

The moment always dictates in my work. What I feel, I do. This is the most important thing for me. Everybody can look, but they don’t necessarily see. I never calculate or consider. I see a situation and I know that it’s right, even if I have to go back to get the proper lighting.

Not everyone with a smartphone camera, however, is a flâneur. It involves the cultivation of what Balzac calls “the gastronomy of the eye,” a deliberate stance of Epicurean pleasure-seeking. If photography is an art, its delights are in seeing. It is seeing elevated to an art form–an art of seeing.


The decisive moment
Dumaguete, Philippines (2015)

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