There he goes, crossing the intersection of Barton Street East and Sherman Avenue North; a controversial area. Who is he, and why is he there? Seeing this lone ambulatory brought an old discussion to mind, and I think about it every time I look at this picture.
We’ve gone through a period in which nearly everyone and their uncle have had a taste of shooting contemporary street photography (SP). I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, it will take time before all of those who have jumped onto the fad aspects of the genre become bored or disillusioned with it, and leave the truly dedicated behind to carry it on. I think the climax may have been back in 2012. Now we are beginning to see exactly who is genuinely interested in the art as practitioners, viewers, collectors or any combination thereof. For me, this is an exciting time.
During the years of resurgence, if I may say that, many journals, essays, books, magazines, blogs and online forums have come about in which people have connected flâneurism with street photography. It’s really nothing new. Geniuses like Susan Sontag have been doing it since at least the early 1970’s. Although we have tried our best to explain the phenomenon, once in a while someone still asks me just what a flâneur is especially as artists like me are willing to refer to ourselves as flâneurs.
It truly is something difficult to explain in just a few words while getting right to the heart of it. I don’t think that there is even an official dictionary definition for a flâneur. We’re forced to recall and cite whatever broad or limited knowledge we have of Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin.
As the word flâneur is obviously of French origin; European French that is, there are English translations of it meaning either “stroller” or worse a disrespectul “soliciter”.
I’ve lived my entire life in predominantly Anglophone parts of Canada (Ontario and BC), so in my youth I learned French as a second language but never became fluent due to not having anyone to continue speaking it with. I spent three years learning German and got much further with it but still didn’t achieve fluency for the same reason.
Manitoba has a fairly large Francophone population but Quebec, “La belle province”, is true French Canada.
I recall a highschool French teacher explaining to our class years ago that there are some in Quebec who consider the term flâneur to be an insult whereas it might not be taken that way in much of France. French Canadians allegedly consider a flâneur to be a person who is pompous and may only pretend to care about others. This notion is the opposite of what the the term was originally supposed to mean.
I don’t think Beaudelaire of 19th century France forsaw the fuss he starting when he first coined the term to represent someone who did care about all others of society, and was curious about his or her community that they would habitually wander about observing circumstances and contemplating ways of improving life. It’s presumed that in 19th century France, the only people that had the time to stroll around cities this way would be the wealthy. This is the reason why even Beaudelaire’s description of a flâneur is someone of affluence or perceived social importance. A “gentleman” is the English term usually associated with Beaudelaire’s description; a term that used to be heavily associated with snobby British aristocracy.
It is cynicism why there may be some in modern day Quebec who would doubt that a wealthy person could sincerely care about other’s circumstances but their own. That cyicism is also associated with centuries old bigotry between Anglophone and Francophone Canadians – dating back to the beginnings of Canada when the British and the French (from France that is) were often at each other’s throats while competing for dominance of this land (the British won); hence the unwillingness of Francophone Canadians, who are flâneurs, to call themselves flâneurs.
Really, a flâneur does not have to be wealthy, English, Anglophone, a career politician or part of any social elite. He or she just has to be curious about the realities of a community (not much watered down), and want to find adequate ways to celebrate or improve it. It’s an interesting and understandably very controversial aspect of idealism.
As for the photographic connection, well, I believe that the true diehards who will not OD on SP will end up being the unsung flâneurs of their communities. When you actually consider the history of SP since the late 1800’s, isn’t that how it has always been?