Monday, 23 February 2009

The art of the flâneur

The French have a word for it.

Well … they would, wouldn’t they? And it comes resplendent with the sort of deeper meaning (suggesting sophistication) that is so much of the reason that so many of us love (and secretly envy) the French.

For 19th-century French poet and critic Charles Baudelaire, the flâneur was a stroller – someone who walks the streets of a city, not simply as way of getting from A to B, but in leisurely manner so as to appreciate and experience that city.

The word was initially associated with Paris, but has come to be applied to any leisurely pedestrian exploration of urban streets.

Almost inevitably, given Baudelaire’s idea of the flâneur as “a botanist of the sidewalk”, it has been linked with street photography.

In her 1977 essay On Photography, Susan Sontag noted: “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’.”

Back in 1962, Cornelia Otis Skinner had described it thus in Elegant Wits and Grand Horizontals: “There is no English equivalent for the French word flâneur. Cassell’s dictionary defines flâneur as a stroller, saunterer, drifter but none of these terms seems quite accurate.

“There is no English equivalent for the term, just as there is no Anglo-Saxon counterpart of that essentially Gallic individual, the deliberately aimless pedestrian, unencumbered by any obligation or sense of urgency, who, being French and therefore frugal, wastes nothing, including his time which he spends with the leisurely discrimination of a gourmet, savoring the multiple flavors of his city.”

Quite accidentally, about two years ago, I ‘discovered’ street photography. There I was, innocently ‘flâneuring’ away a lunch hour in Russell Square in the centre of London, camera around my neck as I looked for interesting things to snap, when I spotted the doorman from a nearby hotel.

He’d walked around the corner, possibly looking for cabs to hail or possibly just taking a few moments break. But there he was, bowler hatted and with white gloves, shoes polished to a mirror-like shine and a red carnation in his lapel, leaning back against a bollard.

Street photography has been around for a long time – it’s apotheosis, probably Henri Cartier Bresson.

But that porter was my personal introduction. As though some deep instinct kicked in, I became an animal stalking my prey, knowing instinctively how this target needed capturing.

And I keep doing it. Yesterday, I shocked friends by snapping a man right opposite me on a train. Now he was reading a paper, which I think made quite an interesting shot in its own right, with the emphasis on the solitary hand that you can see. But the friends in question were convinced that he’d have been aware, given how near I was – or rather that I'd get my proverbial lights punched out if someone realised that I was snapping them in such a fashion.

But, for me at least, there is no intention to deprecate. This is about capturing the moment.

There are claims that flâneurs are essentially shy people, who have to conquer that in order to get off their shots. Perhaps that’s true.

But it is amazing how few people realise that they’re being photographed – even though you’re wandering around pointing a camera in their general direction.

It is, however, a hunt. And the resultant trophies, at their best, are magnificent, as though you have somehow managed to ensnare a little bit of life itself.

Some time ago, I had an online debate about this with a fellow snapper, who was doing faux outrage over the invasion of privacy that he claimed my personal efforts entailed. He was utterly unable (or unwilling) to grasp the value of stopping time; of capturing these ephemeral moments.

And street photographers – sorry, flâneurs – will continue to stalk and snap their prey, and to capture the life of the city for posterity. And they’ll try to get nearer and nearer to their targets; to capture life more closely than ever, and to test themselves and their hunting skills. Just how near can I get?

* The picture at the top of this post was taken in the home of flânerie, Paris, in December 2007.

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