Interesting hobbies – could you be a flaneur without knowing it?
Ever heard of psychogeography, or adding layers of meaning to the environment? Take to the streets with your camera as a flaneur. No plans. No agenda. Witness from a distance or participate. It’s your choice. See the world… YOUR way.
Coined by a flamboyant absinthe-addicted french poet who died of syphilis, a flaneur (or flaneuse) walks the streets to break the pattern of the work rush. A flaneur can simply walk the streets and enjoy the freedom, or they can take a camera and aim to change the world…
The term ‘flaneur’ is a lovely, decadent concept from the 1890s. It comes from a French verb which means “to stroll”. So as a flaneur you walk around your city – but not on purpose, you simply STROLL – in order to experience it, and possibly change it.
The beauty of the idea is that anyone can be a flaneur. Oscar Wilde was a flaneur. Jack Kerouac definitely was. So was Hunter S. Thompson, in his own ether-snorting way.
If you go for an aimless walk, watching people, maybe doing something to shake them up from their city daydream – or maybe capturing everyone else’s city daydream in a poem, or in a photo – then you’re a flaneur, too.
Charles Baudelaire, who coined the term ‘flaneur’, was a famous 19th century french critic and poet who slightly less glamorously died of syphilis and an excess of drinking hallucinogenic absinthe.
Because he was a poet, thinker, alcoholic, and french, Baudelaire did a hell of a lot of walking around Paris. Usually from one absinthe cafe to another. Maybe it was the drugs, or the poverty which meant he couldn’t always take part in city life, but he began to realise that he was a detached observer as he walked, and thus could notice some really interesting things – especially in commercial streets where people from all walks of life thronged together.
Wide-ranging books like Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” demonstrate the concept’s bendiness (Jack Kerouac was definitely a modern-day flaneur).
This idea of the stroller of leisure, both an observer (they see the diversity of humanity) and someone who’s actively involved, had a lot to do with the dandy culture which was so beloved by fabulous people like Oscar Wilde.
In a highly flamboyant, theatrical and knowing way, dandies of the mid-nineteenth century created scenes through outrageous acts like walking turtles on leashes down the streets of Paris.
Wild theatrics like this were a flaneur’s way of showing disgust at the way modern life in the city is so fast, so anonymous, so cloned. They were also a way to actively participate in street life. And, let’s face it, animal cruelty aside, who wouldn’t want to walk down a Parisian sidestreet with a turtle on a leash?
Photography and the flaneur
Amateur photographers with an eye for a new project, take note: flaneur is a term used in the literature of photography, particularly street photography. Victor Fournel (19thC journalist) described street photography like this:
“[The street photographer] is roving and impassioned, preserving the least traces, the changing reflections, the course of things, the movement of the city, the confessions, antipathies, and admirations of the crowd.“
Anyone with a camera and a set of walking legs can do that.
The most notable application of flaneur to street photography probably comes from Susan Sontag in her 1977 essay, On Photography. She describes how, since the development of hand-held cameras in the early 20th century, the camera has become the tool of the flaneur:
“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 flaneur finds the world ‘picturesque.“
The idea of the artful stroller has come to be a symbol for the magic of the urban city and the strangeness of the modern age. Maybe it’s time for us all to become flaneurs and make our city as magical and strange as we always knew it could be…
Walk. Look. If you see it, film it.
Being theatrical when you go for a walk wakes up the rest of the world.