The Unrepentant Flâneur’s Guide to Street Photography Part 1

Dancing Goddess of the Air

Street Photography and Flâneurism

Are you a street photographer? Are you someone who wants to get into street photography? Are you sure or unsure of your approach? Where do you want to go with it? Questions . . . questions . . . questions! If you love SP as I do, I really can’t give you any sort of tutorial on how to be a street shooter. I’m not a teacher, and there are way too many variables. You’re going to have to find your own way. The most I can do is; bit-by-bit over the coming months if you’re interested, is show you my personal approach after all the years and studying and practicing that I’ve done. I can try to explain and show you what inspires me. Maybe, hopefully, something will resonate with your goals. So, here it goes.

By the way, I’m still studying and practicing; learning.

Are you a flâneur? I’m quite certain that I am. For some street photographers, introspection on the how and why they make the shots they do is probably considered a waste of time or worse, a buzzkill. While I empathize with them, I still don’t mind some reflection. Experience has taught me that I tend to learn well from it. I find that what is important to my approach, and has a positive effect on my street photography is realizing and and embracing my flâneurism.

I don’t want to be another artist trying to explain what a flâneur is in a blog. I’m expecting that interested readers will either already know or will find out elsewhere; and there is no shortage of easily found resources out there for that. Being an artist in love with documentary photography, I can’t help but explain what it means to be a flâneur with a camera.

I’m also going to try real hard to avoid referencing and quoting Susan Sontag in a blog entry that can easily become way too long. I highly recommend; nevertheless, that anyone new or experienced in street photography (SP) read Susan’s book “On Photography”. I’ll even give a copy to anyone who e-mails me with a serious interest in obtaining one. Consider it a gift of insightfulness. Just make sure that you put “On Sontag” in the subject line of your e-mail.

First published in 1977; long before digital photography and the Internet became common use by virtually everyone, Susan’s treatise lucidly grasped the extreme globalization of photographic art in a way that contemporary art theorists, bloggers and aficionados have only just begun to sound off on in recent years. She was spot on in her criticisms and compliments of photography, flâneurism and the inevitable relationship between SP and the flâneur. This affiliation is an important aspect of a three-part standard of photographic ethics that Sonya called “a new visual code”. After all these years, “On Photography” may still be the best suggestion on the necessity and dangers of SP, and what it means to be a photographer who is fascinated by the aesthetics of moments in modern living.

A word of caution; Susan Sontag’s criticisms should not be misconstrued as a dislike for photographic art. Susan was an art lover, and appreciated photography with an objective eye.

I don’t believe that all or even most street photographers are also flâneurs just because Sontag has drawn a connection between flâneurs and photographers, it’s more than that. I can speak from personal experience.

As a flâneur I want; correction, need to better know the urban spaces that I and others are willing to live in. I have an admittedly bizarre need to challenge my perceptions of what I think I know about any living space in a city. I want to verify if what I hear from others, including experts, is accurate, partly true or just plain false. As a street photographer I want to record what it is that I find to be so special or austere about places, how people do things and the ramifications of why. As a street shooter, I’m also willing to communicate what I’m learning from my excursions to anyone curious about how the world looks through my eyes, and is filtered through my own value system.

Why would anyone care? Many don’t of course but there are many mind voyeurs who are also curious about the world. Part of their fascination is about discovering what horrors, fantasies and realities go on in others heads.

What’s the point in sharing my vision of an urban landscape with someone who might be hoping to take what I give them to either destroy a community or build it up? Personally, and naturally because of my own sense of ethics, I cling to the belief that I can effect positive change in the community that I document. I don’t think the change is overnight; it takes time even decades, and I don’t believe that change is affected by SP alone. As I noted in the margin of my copy of Sontag’s book, SP is a contributor among all other circumstances in societies that affect change, and move cities and entire nations through progressing centuries.

That change comes in a couple forms. When I make a street photograph of something depressing, and spend time reexamining it, plus the moment and circumstances in which something I photographed occurred, sometimes I come up with ideas that I can share with others to at least find out if it is feasible to act on to create solutions to the problem. I think there is the potential that a street photograph can evoke such thinking in others also. If the photo I make is amusing or positive in some way, it may cause someone who is inclined to frequently be down on society rethink their views and find some comfort in seeing documented evidence that the world is still not a totally lost place. The world still has a lot of beauty to be acknowledged and celebrated, even if it has already been similarly photographed before. That’s real change.

Trying to communicate with others and effect such change is an important challenge. Rising to the challenge is its own reward.

As an artistic flâneur, I become increasingly more selective of what and how I shoot, what and how I display it for the curious and the reasons why. While I work with this method, additional measures include striving to be sensitive and adaptive to the perpetual changes of urban environments.

There is benefit in being an artistic flâneur, and the application of SP is extremely useful.

15 thoughts on “The Unrepentant Flâneur’s Guide to Street Photography Part 1

  1. I can’t agree with you more on several topics you touched on in this post. Over the past year I have been a avid reader of many online forums and websites regarding SP and participated (albeit not faithfully) to the SPN project with you, I too have seen a proliferation of SP on the Internet. The popularity one could argue is detrimental to the craft though. I see more and more snapsnots taken on the street Being labeled as street photography. Also the increased rate in invasive photography through jamming a camera in someone’s face or flashing them has become much too popular and giving street photography a bad name. It is much like one of your recent posts talking about graffiti and tagging. SP has become more about who has the most “balls” and can take the most invasive picture and moved away from the true art of capturing that perfect moment of composition practiced by the greats. This has caused me, like you, to pull back on showcasing images regularly and becoming much more stringent in my editing.
    Great post, enjoyed it a lot

  2. This post is very inspiring. I have had a love affair with black and white street photgraphy as a teenager. As an adult I have lost the courage to actually start taking street photos. As Aaron mentioned, street photography has become so invasive. What I have learned about street photography is that it captures the essence of a cimmunity and its inhabitants. I get that people want to protect their privacy but how do you go about capturing them without offending them or invading their space and privacy? Are there rules/laws to follow regarding street photography?

    • Rules? Absolutely none. Only guidelines that can be bent or broken at will.

      Laws? Every region of the planet has some laws with respect to photography in general, not for any specific form or genre. Whether you’re shooting in the town that you live in or in some municipality that you’re visiting, you’re going to have to figure out how far you legally can, and are personally willing to go.

      Little-by-little, I intend to explore this dynamic in this series of posts.

      Every type of photography has risks and ethical concerns. You’ll never please everyone under those situations, I promise you that. You have to decide for yourself what is tolerable and what isn’t, and hope that you get it right. No one can truly answer that for you. Many will try; forcefully even, but only you can make the final call. When you do, it is you that will have to live with it no matter what. So, whether it’s street photography or some other type, don’t take what you’re doing lightly.

      Speaking for myself only, I had to come to the realization that even if I succeed in making aesthetically interesting, technically accurate and thought provoking images none of it will mean anything if I can’t be sure that there is a legitimate effort to affect real change in a community. That change could be short term, long term, big or small. Either way, I must be able to see that my work can do some actual good. That is fundamental to keeping me going with this particular genre.

      Thank you so much for stopping by. It’s feedback like yours and Aarons that this series is supposed to trigger.

  3. Pingback: "The Unrepentant Flaneurs Guide to Street Photography" On Modes of Flight. | Street Photography Workshops

  4. Reading this Allan, is fascinating. I’m not sure how I have missed this blog over the past couple of years but I’m aiming to read it all now. I’m also going to recommend my daughter takes a good hard read of this as well. She is currently studying photography in London & loves her SP. She could learn a lot from your blog. 🙂

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