Project · Psychogeographies

The flâneur

The figure of the flâneur as Sontag puts it is a figure:

‘The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitring, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flaneur finds the world picturesque.’  (Sontag, 1977) [1]

For me personally my whole photography career began in this way, and not only in the city. The wondering and musing aspect of my mind, revelled in wandering, ‘stopping and staring’ as the poet said and simply taking in the atmosphere was what really inspired me to pick up and begin work with the camera. All of this this long before being aware of these concepts as observable phenomenon.

The ideas that sprung from the situationist movement headed by Debord, was essentially related to ones relationship to the environment and especially the city scape. ‘The spectacle of society’ is very much a critique of post war capitalism and all that this implied. Debord and the situationist movement was concerned that the consumerist culture that had sprung up created a damping down of persons creativity and boredom that was then to be satiated by consuming goods as a way to ameliorate that sensation of vacuousness. (Nicholas, 2019) [2]


In effect it would seem that Debord’s critique of modernisation via capitalism came along with what seemed to be some healthy alternatives to endless device distraction, such as, taking in one’s environment in a full blooded and aware way, really being present to the effects of the geography of one’s physical situation. The idea of being a wanderer, or a ‘voyeuristic stroller’ as Sontag puts it gives the opportunity to see life anew, look with fresh eyes and perhaps learn something about the world within which one lives via inner direct experience. Debord was critical of the world of images especially as used in forms of propaganda to make new purchases.

Debord was not the instigator of the idea, although he vehemently protected it and promoted it as suchFrom my reading of Debord it would seem that his main thrust was towards the political and his critique largely assumed that the governing or ruling class had placed the majority in a compromised position which essentially enslaves individuals to a system of incessant production and wage earning. (Coverly, 2006) [3]

In some ways this theory seems rather esoteric, something that one almost has to learn by following a seasoned practitioner. The art of being a flâneur would seem to be something that comes with a particular view of life and the world. As for the existing traditions as prototypes for the flâneur Machen and later, De Quincy were examples of how this figure practicing his art and then transforming the observations into written form were exemplified. (Coverly, 2006) [4]. The flâneur of Debord’s Paris seemed to be taking a stronger political stance in the context of aesthetic practice which would theoretically lead to some social transformation. 

The occult, exotic and mystical aspects of this practice were deemed to fill and fuel the imagination of the practitioner. From my own experience of being a city stroller, the sense is one of which one is waiting to see something afresh, anew and with an exciting perspective that then can be material for the imagination is the driving force.

Lauster has a critique of Benjamin’s view of the flaneur:

“Benjamin’s flaneur moves in the ‘Nebelregion’ not so much of a religious world, but in that of capitalist reification, by perceiving the man-made, familiar city as a phantasmagoria, an autonomous, potentially fear-inspiring world of objects independent of himself.” (Lauster, 2007) [5]

If the phantasmagoria of the city scape is essentially what interests the stroller voyeur, then this leaning towards fetishisation as Lauster puts it, seems to lean into an interesting area of the magical, the imaginative and fantasy. The area at once feels nebulous and familiar in the sense that perhaps everyone has something of a voyeur inside: the desire to look and observe and be thrilled by what we perceive.

However, it is still not really clear to me what the overall aim is of the flaneur, even and maybe this twilight zone of activity needs to be left there at just that.

“In times of great social change, the flaneur emerges as one who can facilitate cultural-social developments and ultimately translate what he sees into art” (Mitchell, 2008) [6]

Mitchell gives the emphasis a more positive interpretation awarding the flâneur an almost visionary status that allows their perception to become a tool that translates their insight into art that then in turn helps the cultural zeitgeist to be comprehended and understood more clearly. This would stand to reason for the periods that the mysterious figure emerged with force between the two world wars representing a time of radical upheaval and social change.


  1. Sontag, S. On photography (1977:55), Penguin Press
  2. Nicholas, T. What the theory [online] [accessed, February 2020]
  3. Coverly, M. Psychogeography (2006) Oldcastle books.
  4. Coverly, M. Psychogeography (2006:52) Oldcastle books.
  5. Lauster, M. Walter Benjamin’s myth of the flaneur (2007) [online]  [accessed, February 2020]
  6. Mithcell, J. Painting modern life: A history of the flaneur from Baudlaire to Bod Dylan (2008) [online] [accessed, February 2020]

Published by Truevisionphotography

I'm a student photographer studying through the OCA a UK based arts university. I'm in the foundation year of my studies and enjoying it immensely. I'm also a yoga teacher and co-founder of Bodhiyoga a buddhism based yoga teacher training program that runs in the UK and Spain each year. As a photographer I'm interested in all forms of fine art. I find the arts really important in my life. I love nature and aim to be in the outdoors as much as I can. Generally I think that all the different strands of my life are flowing to towards self development in the greatest sense of the term. The arts, buddhist practice yoga and meditation are all tools to that end. I feel committed to communication the these values in the world both through the visual arts as well as teaching.

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