Preparing to flân

We’ve been thinking about street photography this week.

In the concise Oxford Hachette French-English dictionary, the translation of the verb ‘flâner’ is simply to stroll, dawdle, or idle.

Inject some Benjamin or Baudelaire into this dry definition, and you get the more poetic Flâneur, who “has been portrayed in the past as a well-dressed man, strolling leisurely through the Parisian arcades of the nineteenth century – a shopper with no intention to buy […]. Traditionally the traits that mark the flâneur are wealth, education, and idleness. He strolls to pass the time that his wealth affords him, treating the people who pass and the objects he sees as texts for his own pleasure. An anonymous face in the multitude, the flâneur is free to probe his surroundings for clues and hints that may go unnoticed by the others. […] As a member of the crowd that populates the streets, the flâneur participates physically in the text that he observes while performing a transient and aloof autonomy with a “cool but curious eye” that studies the constantly changing spectacle that parades before him. As an observer, the flâneur exists as both ‘active and intellectual’. The flâneur has no specific relationship with any individual, yet he establishes a temporary yet deeply empathetic and intimate relationship with all that he sees – an intimacy bordering on the conjugal – writing a bit of himself into the margins of the text in which he is immersed, a text devised by selective disjunction.”

The curatorial premise of Collectives Encounter 2011 is ‘The Flâneur’, and this will sit within an edition of Format Photography Festival that is dedicated to street photography so, if you gloss over the wealth and idleness (and, if you happen to be a member of the fairer sex, the well-dressed man bit), you have above what could be a near perfect description of the street photographer on the prowl?

None of us at Wideyed have ever really considered ourselves as street photographers. Louise Taylor’s practice revolves around rural issues, and Richard Glynn and myself tend to work on projects where, even if the images are made on the street, the setting is incidental, is a backdrop rather than a subject. As (with ASA Collective) we work towards the production of Mapping the Flâneur (or Map the Flân, as we’ve begun calling it), the question of how we ourselves, as photographers, are going to work on this project arises – especially as none of us is sure we understand what street photography actually is.

That’s why we went to last week’s North East Photography Network reading group. The main subject for it was street photography, and we thought we might be able to sit at the back and take notes. Suggested reading beforehand was this 18 April 2010 Guardian article by Sean O’Hagan: Why Street Photography is Facing a Moment of Truth. Take this quoted definition of street photography from the article as a starting point: “It’s essentially a way of working wherein you have to be utterly open to what happens on the street. So, no props, no models, no setting up of shots, and you always use available light. Then, it’s down to a mixture of happenstance, luck and skill.” OK, fair enough, but it’s a bit of a conversation stopper, isn’t it? Remove the words ‘the street’ from the above and it could be a description of many kinds of straight documentary. And then, apply the “always use natural light” injunction to Bruce Gilden, and a star of Format Festival should automatically be barred entry to the party. Anyway, the reading group discussion about street photography quickly (and not unsurprisingly?) meandered away in other directions, and we came home not much wiser.

We then looked on the London Street Photography Festival site, where street photography is defined as, “Candid, un-staged photography which captures, explores or questions contemporary society and the relationships between individuals and their surroundings. Situated in public environments – which are often but not exclusively, urban – street photography is perhaps more easily defined as a method than a genre. The results can fit into documentary, portraiture and other genres, but the key elements of spontaneity, careful observation and an open mind ready to capture whatever appears in the viewfinder are essential.”

Which (with the other research we’ve done) has left us wondering; has ‘street photography’, as a name either for a genre or a method of photographic practice, become something of a misnomer?

We’re hoping that Map the Flân will help us explore the boundaries of this question.

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