AESTHETIC STUDY Nº4 | CITY
Words & Visuals
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.”
“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.”
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.