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Words & Visuals

Lily McFly

So you are not cut out for one city. You crave resettlement every now and then. Fernweh – being homesick for a place you’ve never been to – is your constant state of mind. To live in one city, to think in one city, to eat and drink in one city, to love and suffer in one city seems boring and unfortunate to you. Why? Because what you really want is every kind of life; at some point in time, you can ‘try on’ the hectic and vivid lifestyle of a New Yorker, then become a sophisticated La Parisienne, get lost among Tokyoites, or find yourself with laid-back Melbournians. And moving from one city to another in your mind equates with experiencing another life. You become a part of the city. The city becomes a part of your identity.

We live in the cities. The cities live in us. Absorbed in the inner city odyssey, we immerse ourselves in a fascinating game of unraveling the symbolic complexity of urban space, believing that to understand the city means to unlock it. And if we can unlock one city, we may unlock any city and finally feel connected to the world, to ourselves, to others, to the present, the past, and the future. And a sense of meaning and purpose will come into our lives, no longer carrying the traces of disenchantment, but bringing us face to face with the beauty of the world and showing how we fit in it.


Flâ·neur | flä-ˈnər |
A man who saunters around observing city life and society.

There are plenty of bystanders and plenty of gaper in the streets, but a genuine flaneur is a rarity. Flaneur is a casual wanderer and observer of city life. Originally a recurring personage of nineteenth-century French literature, the figure of flaneur has become an archetype of the urban explorer and the connoisseur of the street. With thinkers and writers of the twentieth-century, the concept of a wandering city-dweller has come to be seen as a key to understanding and portraying the city.

The French noun flaneur means “stroller”, “lounger”, or “saunterer”. But the term itself has nothing to do with “doing nothing”. Honore de Balzac defines flanerie as “the gastronomy of the eye”. In his novel ‘Ferragus’ Balzac writes about the ability of Paris to trigger thoughts in the mind of those who wander through the city observing it:

“These men of study and thought, of poetry and pleasure who know how to harvest, during their flanerie in Paris, the mass of delights, floating, at all times, between its walls.”

But perhaps the most significant portrait of the flaneur as a figure of the modern metropolis belongs to Charles Baudelaire. An aesthete and dandy, Baudelaire’s flaneur wandered the streets of nineteenth-century Paris indulging the kaleidoscopic manifestations of the life of a modern city:

“His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flaneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite…To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world — impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define.”

In the twentieth-century, Walter Benjamin returns to the concept of the flaneur in his ‘The Arcades Project’. Benjamin uses Baudelaire’s flaneur as a basis for an exploration of the impact of modern city life upon the human psyche. He puts forward two complementary concepts to explain our human response to urbanity – Erlebnis (shock-induced anesthesia caused by the overwhelming sensory attack of modern life) and Erfahrung (positive response, referring to the experience of the wealth of sights, sounds and smells the city has to offer). According to his theory, flaneur synchronises himself with the shock experience of modern life (Erlebnis) to lead us toward ‘awakening’ using empathy (Erfahrung).
Nowadays the idea of flanerie as a desirable lifestyle has become unthinkable, due to the modern horror at the thought of ‘doing absolutely nothing’, because wandering the streets of the city without actually going to somewhere seems meaningless. However, physical wandering has parallels in intellectual exploration, and the spirit of the flaneur is present in many other activities as a mode of engagement with urban space. For example, in contemporary literature, flaneur can still be a hero of the story: in the Teju Cole’s debut novel, Open City, narrator Julius, a Nigerian immigrant, wanders Manhattan, painting scenes of both what occurs around him and past events that he can’t help but dwell on.

Flaneur was, in some sense, a prefigure of a street photographer. And one of the pioneers of street photography – Eugene Atget – was also a flaneur. Strolling through the paradoxes of Paris, he captured magnificent palaces from before World War II, bridges and quays on the banks of the Seine, and shops with their window displays. His indiscriminate looking involved reassessments of the idea that the legibility of the cities was to be found not in political institutions, social hierarchy, topographical segmentations, but in pavements, empty chairs, rain and umbrellas, stalls and arcades.

Street photographer is, as Susan Sontag puts it, “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.” What’s the difference between street and documentary photography? Classics of street photography – Charles Negre, Bill Brandt, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Helen Levitt, Robert Frank, and Garry Winogrand –

were all visual poets carrying the expression of their whole nature as the photographic act. There was too much emphasis on elements of narrative and peripheral angles of vision for their style to be considered a fragment of raw reality. French art historian Gilles Mora identifies street photography as a documentary of the street (architectural inventory, records of architectural change, preservation record of disappearing quarters), also mentioning those strains of street photography which treat the street as theatre, as witness to the intricate dynamics of life, as the trigger of many kinds of poetry.

Perhaps, ambivalent nature of street photography is what mesmerizes us – it stands at the cross- roads between the tourist snap and the photojournalism of the news. Nevertheless, it asks to be treated as much as a vernacular photography as a high art. It is the ultimate expression of one’s urban experience – to convert fleeting moments into a visual souvenir.

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