I’ve always loved taking photos and viewing the photography of others. Given that virtually every cell phone is a camera, millions if not billions of people are able to photograph. Now we can document and record virtually any and all moments of our lives whether in a selfie or a fine art photograph of a street scene.
I once read about the flâneur who strolled Paris in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Originally, the term flâneur suggested a sort of lazy fellow strolling about—a coddled time- waster and dilettante. Perhaps class distinctions were beginning, at that time, to be challenged. The gentleman of leisure [the gad-about], who frequented the bars, cafes and the boulevards, was naturally resented by the honest labourer.
However, it was not long before the flâneur asserted a reputable presence on the streets of Paris. The writer, Baudelaire, characterized the flâneur as a “gentleman stroller of city streets”, He saw the flâneur as having a key role in understanding, participating in and portraying the city. As urbanization increased, surely such a person was needed to observe and comment upon the massive growth and development. Indeed, the flâneur may well have been an artist of some kind. Perhaps he was a painter, pianist or poet and I will tell you why I think so.
It occurred to me that the flâneur might be the great-great grandfather of the street photographer. Why? The flâneur and the street photographer have very similar mind-sets which are necessary for their work. Both of them need a special openness and attitude toward what surrounds them. Both of them must be receptive and completely non-judgmental.
For example, if the flâneur is strolling about Paris on a Saturday afternoon, he needs to be attentive and observant to soak up the atmosphere and happenings. Doesn’t this remind you of the TAO about immersing yourself in the ebb and flow of life?
But suppose he heartily dislikes ostentatious display of wealth and, in effect, blots that out. Just think what he’ll miss! He will sneer dismissively at the wealthy lady wrapped in furs and festooned with jewelry as she alights from her coach. And then, he will miss the wonderful scene with her coachman pulling a face and dancing a jig behind her back. Wouldn’t that have given our flâneur a wonderful idea for a short story or even an entire opera? One’s prejudices can block much material and many pleasures from life if you let them. If the artist refuses to look, what will he see? Not very much! This sounds like an attitude which is scarcely conducive to creativity.
Everything that pertains to the flâneur could apply to the street photographer in New York City today or to any kind of artist any where who is searching for creative inspiration. If she does not step outside her “comfort zone”, she will not, in certain parts of New York City, catch the early rays of sun breaking gently on the garbage strewn on the curb. There are many photographs in which the colours and textures of detritus make a gorgeous impression on the eye. She will also miss the huge, sad eyes of the little boy sitting on the front steps eating a crust of bread for his breakfast.
And so, the skills and the attitude of the flâneur are necessary for creativity to abound. It’s the non-discriminatory, alert eye which sees not only what is there but also beyond, behind or underneath the readily visible world. Be receptive not reactive, be non-judgmental and really see what is there to be seen. Surely that’s the best way to practice one’s art.
Here are some of my favourite images from two of the earliest street photographers.
Eugene Atget was actually a commercial photographer. His work was in great demand especially by some famous Surrealist artists such as Man Ray and Magritte. Although he is considered as the first street photographer, people appear rarely appear in his photographs because his focus was mainly set on architecture. However his shots are often composed with some objects remaining in the scene which would indicate that people are not far off.
Alfred Stieglitz was an early American street photographer who epitomized the optimism of the beginning of the twentieth century. The image above of the horse drawn coach was one of his very first professional shots. Apparently, he stood out in this snow storm for hours upon hours until he go the exact image he wanted.
The image below is his famous photograph of Wall Street. In his photography he excelled in the art of the social statement. My first impression of that image? Dwarfed by the buildings of commerce, the people on the street look driven by some invisible force. What could it be–ambition…greed or just need? A picture of a column of ants comes to mind.
Stieglitz, an artist in the broadest sense, did not confine himself to just photography. He had a great interest in the work of the modernist painters at the time such as Matisse and Picasso and he was instrumental in arranging exhibitions of modern paintings alongside photographic work.
I think it’s fair to say that both the psychiatrist, Carl Jung, and the mythologist, Joseph Campbell, thought a great deal about creativity and the role of the artist in society. Certainly, in many respects they both saw the artist as the prophet–the one who brought us what we most need as individuals and as a collective society.
You might want to read the blog about the artist getting past the persona through the photography of Yusef Karsh who photographed many famous personages. You’ll find it right here. http://maryemartintrilogies.com/persona-unmasked-by-karsh/
And to finish off, here’s an extra street photograph which I took in Times Square, New York City one afternoon when I was playing the flâneur. It’s entitled Hey Jude. Why? Because that is the song this family was singing.
Do you have any experiences of getting into the mind set of the flâneur ? I’d love to hear! When you look at these photographs do you see what the artist was trying to relay to us? Have you had the experience of the flâneur?
This post was first published in June of 2015. I haven’t been blogging much for the past year because I’ve been writing my seventh novel. If you like experiencing and thinking about art, creativity and life, you might enjoy the novels in my two trilogies [below].
Mary E. Martin is the author of two trilogies: The Osgoode Trilogy, inspired by her many years of law practice; and The Trilogy of Remembrance, set in the glitter and shadows of the art world. Both Trilogies will elevate the reader from the rush and hectic world of today and spin them into realms of yet unimagined intrigue. Be inspired by the newly released and final installment of The Trilogy of Remembrance, Night Crossing. I am working on a seventh novel entitled The Wondrous Apothecary which I hope to have published in 2018.