Assignment 2 · Preparatory notes, ideas and observations building up to assignment II
- further reflections
- february up-date
- looking at abstraction and the difficulties in visual representation
- looking at narrative structures for this assignment
- identifying the concept: The flaneur
- the practical working out of the assingment
1. Introduction Up-date March 2020
The inspiration for this assignment is a complex one. It derives from the situationists, Baudelaire’s literary/historical/semi-fiction, semi-real flaneur, Marx’s theory of alienation in society due to high level capitalism (advanced capitalism) and the derogatory effects of that on the individual and society and the Dérive of Debord. The ideas have stimulated something powerful in me and this assignment will be an investigation of some of these concepts as applied via a Dérive that I have planned through the city whereby I will make these photos.
In trying to give this photographic assignment a more concrete conceptual base I’ve already laid out the general theoretical context above. Concretely I’ll be observing the inner and the outer realities as I wander through the city, to see if there are signs and traces of what the flaneurs and situationists discovered and discussed not so long ago in history. Mine is an exploration from a photographic perspective of some of these key concepts, basing it on around the emotional response to what is witnessed in the street.
2. December: Further reflections.
After studying the work of Robert Frank (seeing it afresh) I was taken by how I connected quite deeply with these images. They seemed to speak louder than previously. In the commentaries about his images we hear that they are fresh, new and not seen before and I suppose that it is this that hits home. Although Frank had many that imitated his work or were inspired by it, his photos hold a particular aesthetic that seems be very interesting to observe. Did he really catch the zeitgeist of America during the 50’s? Well maybe.
Returning to the theme of narrative and semiotics. These two subject seem to be the main framework for photography I am realising. Both a convincing story and the content of the narrative being supplied by relevant images and symbols seem pivotal on building up an image that has impact.
3. February 2020-update
Since setting out on the preliminary notes for this assignment I’ve covered a lot of ground in terms of study. I’ve not finished yet on the ideation stage.
More latterly I have been considering the concepts related to Baudelaire’s ‘flaneur’ and the theme of psychogeography. These two theme capture my imagination due to the fact that the relationship between art photography and the sense of a place (in terms of all of the senses being involved) interests me a great deal. This was my initial point of entry into serious photography and I feel that it is still there feeding my inspiration. The question is wether this area can convert itself into a more abstract presentation visually or wether it simply remains the working backdrop of the assignment.
4. Abstraction and the challenges of visual representation
Abstraction is a complex idea, by its nature. Abstraction does not refer to tangible phenomena in the world perceived by the senses, yet can be felt and visualised. The domain of abstraction then is the mind itself. Therefore, presenting a visual or illustrative document of something abstract by definition will be challenging. Visual concepts involve an enormous field of potential. This is also not including the area of fiction where many new concept can be created.
The key requirements of abstract thinking are the capacity to visualise. This might not mean just an eidetic mind made image, but something felt and experienced internally in other ways.
A recurring thing for me in life, is the desire to challenge assumptions. The mind makes them habitually in order to locate its perceptions somewhere. It is necessary. But there is often a lack of full understanding in what is perceived. The objects of our senses are a sounding board of which we only have the experience through our senses and not an experience of the thing itself. This is the material of buddhist teaching and the mind and also what socrates was aiming at in some of his teaching from a philosophical perspective.
I think that I want to avoid producing a set of visual tropes or clichés in this assignment for example. Love: two dogs looking at each other in the street! I have already seen it…
The other issue bound to arise in presenting abstract ideas via the photo is that abstract ideas can be interpreted in many different ways. Perhaps here its important to bear in mind what Moriyama (2019) said when he discussed his images that when the photo is taken it is the property of the photographer, later it belongs to each persons’ interpretation and feelings.
5. Looking at the narrative structure for the work
The narrative structure will inevitably take on the format of a set of photos, each one independently exploring the concept. This is not a photo series or sequence. However, the wording of the remit for the assignment could lend itself to producing eight different narratives, which could be demanding, or exploring the same concept but expressed through each image individually. Both are a tall order!
As yet the concept isn’t decided although I’ve played with some ideas below. Regardless of this, I can still think about how to present the work and what sort of context to set. I would obviously like to show a degree of development of my idea, as pointed out by Short (2011:102) and therefore think that working with a single concept (but perhaps different facets?) could be the best way to advance.
The elements of continuity will be mainly aesthetic. I have not made a decision to do the work either in B&W or colour, this will be a post photo, editing decision.
However, I feel that the narrative structure of this assignment will involve or give rise to questions. I might well therefore use juxtaposing images but that is still to be worked out.
7. It's time to start mapping out some potential ideas for the assignment.
1 # build a series of images around the broad concept of the flaneur. Do this in relation to Robert Mcfarlane’s suggestion to draw a circle within the parameters of a city and walk it. I’ve adapted the idea a little to consider walking it three times. The concept tied to this is to provide a ‘human document’ of how experiences change according to place, time of day etc. The experiences documented will be varied. Within this idea I draw on the implications of psychogeography, the flaneur and being the observer of subjective experience in relation to external events and environments. This idea interests me partly as to make more conscious how one’s experiences shifts in relation to sense based contact with the external environment. There can be strong, mild and indifferent feelings that arise, but it will be investing to observe this sense of inner and outer change. The ideas being expressed are obviously subjective and personal. The abstraction to these idea in relation to the image is something to be worked on over the coming days. One way in which this might work is to show how abstraction and the material world (via the senses) effect each other.
Another way to approach it might be to produce a cycle of photos that follow a trajectory and then tie together as an overall narrative whilst each photo presenting a contained narrative.
2 # find a group of people and photograph their life stories in a visual way utilising their bodies as a sort of visual map. For example: the guy that I met that walked from Pakistan to Europe, leaving his country without money or knowing where he was going to get a meal each night.
3 # Psychogeography: how could this be explored conceptually to reveal one’s feelings about a place and how it effects us? Abstracting this as an idea would not be difficult.
6. Picking up the concept: The flaneur
I have been dredging literature and videos for hours, reading and exploring this somewhat elusive and yet highly appealing archetype. I first came across this figure, curiously enough, with an old friend (now deceased) who liked to roam the streets of London. Once or twice I went with him. He always had a camera. So there is the connection now coming back. The figure of the flaneur is elusive enough to be abstract and what interests me is the development of this figure and the purpose (or non-purpose) of the flaneur and what they represent.
There are many, many different interpretations of the flaneur. Turing this into a photo assignment will be an interesting challenge and I try not to take the easy road.
Ed Panar: ‘Walking home’: https://vimeo.com/246345638 a contemporary American photographer who has a practice of walking, in around areas he knows, repeatedly over time. His images are very much a vernacular mixed with street photography style such as some of the images made by Paul Graham and other such American contemporary photographers. I found him interesting in his ideas about walking although there is no direct reference to the flaneur.
Inspired by this documentary photographer for the interview he gives, although short. His working method is not so unusual but he talks about ‘moving up a level’ as a photographer and the difficulty of that.
The flaneur in more detail.
As we know the flaneur is a mysterious figure rooted in nineteenth century literature and has its roots in Parisian arcades, and later any metropolis that has space enough for this aimless wondering figure to exist.
The flaneur is a complex figure and here a contrast is set up to help get a sense of what the flaneur represents:
‘The flâneur must not be confused with the badaud; a nuance should be observed here […] The simple flâneur […] is always in full possession of his individuality. By contrast, the individuality of the badaud disappears, absorbed by the outside world, which ravishes him, which moves him to drunkenness and ecstasy. Under the influence of the spectacle that presents itself to him, the badaud becomes an impersonal creature; he is no longer a man, he is the public, he is the crowd.’ (Fournel, cited in: Shaya, 2004.)
The flaneur has roots and connections with artistic endeavour, sitting quite naturally alongside the field of artistic endeavour due to the primary nature of the flaneur being an observer. The word flaneur has its roots in the old Scandinavian flana (to run giddily here and there) and the the Irish libertine (Coverly, 2018.) So we find this figure mysteriously cropping up from the time of Baudelaire (1821) via Poe to Benjamin and all the while the progression of the figure seems to appear at once as an outsider, an outcast who is dissociated and observant, to being a dandy who relishes in the crowd, loves drinking in the sights and sounds of the metropolis and generally has the luxury of time to do so. The historical figure has its roots in the bourgeois Paris (the term being a marxist derogatory word for the follower of capitalism).
Fournel’s definition and distinction seems to be speaking about the group and the individual. The flaneur in this sense appears to be the conscious intelligent observer of the otherwise unaware ‘gawking’ Badaud. These words have strong connotations for the difference between someone trying to live a more conscious, reflective life, a creative life as opposed to a mere participant in the status quo. In this sense the flaneur is, to my mind a radical and an individual rather than an individualist.
The flaneur presents himself as a contradictory figure in literature. Sometimes described as an observer on the cusp of modernity as if taking critical stock of social customs and the changing environment and at other times ‘the man of the crowd […] who becomes intoxicated by its movements’ (Coverly, 2018:69.)
On the whole I find myself drawn more to this figure as an archetype. I believe that I have seen my own practice of photography rise out of this wandering tendency, first of all in the city and then later in the wilderness. I think that the flaneur presents a tendency of movement and reflection. The flaneur is someone trying to understand the complexity of the world that they live in and stay rooted to some fundamental sense of truth and reality. There is also something in the archetype about giving oneself permission to be idle. We live in a highly utilitarian age whereby technology is forcing us to be ever more useful and efficient. Maybe as Stephen writes: ‘But as we grow inexorably busier—due in large part to the influence of technology—might flânerie be due for a revival?’ (Stephen, 2013.)
I would argue that the concept of the flaneur is essentially an inward process rather than something that can be tangibly observed in the outer world. It remains an idea and a practice that, like thinking, cannot really be pinned down as sometime existing in the external sphere but rather is a kind of unfolding and observational tendency from within. Baudelaire sketches out the figure as a person who has been: ‘on the brink of oblivion’ (Baudelaire, cited in Coverly 2018.) This more dramatic interpretation of the flaneur seems a far cry from the Parisian dandy who wanders around aimlessly. So I would argue that the aim might indeed be self knowledge and the wandering, although not planned and organised, has a deeper significance which is to know something fundamental about life.
In relation to the topic of the city (urban environments in particular) the situationist movement; Debord in particular forms a backdrop to this assignment in relation to psychogeography. I have long been interested in the effect of places on the mind and the emotional responses that they can elicit. I feel that this assignment will be a good chance to perhaps explore an aspect of my own experience that has never really been fully made conscious.
The practical working out of the assignment
I have taken a leaf out of Robert Mcfarlane’s works. The idea is to draw a circle within a part of city or town and walk it documenting the experiences that occur. Adapting the exercise slightly I plan to walk it once by day and then again by night. The experiences of a city and ones own subjective experiences changes depending on night or day. I therefore want to document this, in the spirit of the flaneur especially looking to identify emotional responses to perceived areas within the psychophysical space of the city. The dérive is the tool for this photographic project, the idea being to pursue a route but being especially attentive to the ambience and the effect upon one’s mind. At the same time I am looking conceptually at the feelings of alienation and estrangement that seem a part of any modern city lifestyle. This is loosely based on the Marxist idea that capitalism has caused people to move apart, away from each other instead of building relationships based upon their own worth. We interact based on commodity acquisition which is not a healthy way to build society.
The idea as far as the narrative structure goes with this set is to use a group of four diptychs. This way the narrative will place itself more in the context of a questioning exploration...if done well.
The idea of a documenting based on subjective experience is not new. For me the flaneur represents a bridge between fact and fiction. There is something intangible and definitely elusive yet we know that places impact upon us; but how do we communicate that? The topic is more at home in the imagination. Yet the act of walking and observing is quite tangible and subjective. So I will borrow Stott’s explanation of the ‘human document’ and also the concept of the flaneur. The idea then being to produce a human document of experience whilst walking through a city.
The ideas I’d like to portray will be a form of narrative questioning: Is our modern lifestyle separating us, dissociating us? Are we alive in the city or deadened by it? and what are the effects on us emotionally, mentally? Are we alienated and might this be partly due to not making the time to relate to our environment and each other with meaning and depth?
Two cameras will be employed, a 35mm mirrorless with 35mm lens a full frame with flash for the night. 80mm and 50mm lenses will be used on that camera. The narratives won’t necessarily have the same style all the way through but there will be a consistency in the diptych combinations of day and night.
The flaneur is an archetype and as such represents a way of being, but a conscious way of being. Many different qualities can be placed onto the flaneur: An intelligent observer, an enjoyer of the crowd yet separate from it, someone who is in the world but not quite part of it, an anti-modern figure who holds values of idling and strolling to be important non-utilitarian pastimes, in search of private reflective moments, lonely, agility of mind, observer of social dynamics, critic of the modern industrialised world, skilful voyeur and many more aspects. All of this adds a rich dimension to what the flaneur is and represents. In my interpretation I want to use the flaneur as social, culture observer to identify the issues I perceive with our modern way of life, thus giving a critical glance.
Coverley, M. Psychogeography (2018) Oldcastle books
Coverley, M. Psychogeography (2018:69) Oldcastle books.
Coverley, M. (2018:70) Baudelaire: The painter of modern life (1863) Oldcastle books.
Moriyama, D. Hasleblad award winner (2019) [user generated content online] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pAbhkLxhn40 Youtube. c. Hasselblad foundation [accessed, February 2020]
Short, M. Context and Narrative: creative photography basics (2011) AVA academia
Saya, G. The Flâneur, the Badaud, and the Making of a Mass Public in France, circa 1860-1910 [online] [ Fournel, Ce qu’on voit dans les rues de Paris, 263. Benjamin quotes this passage in a footnote, Charles Baudelaire, (i9n.]
://web.a.ebscohost.com.ucreative.idm.oclc.org/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=e65c1cd8-bc16-44d5-ae02-2e5bb1cf5b5c%40sdc-v-sessmgr03 [accessed, March 2020]
Stephen, B. In praise of the flaneur (2013) [online] https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2013/10/17/in-praise-of-the-flaneur/ [accessed, March 2020]