A style of photography I particularly enjoy involves wandering around a town or city, figuring out its geography, working out where the main sights are and trying to capture its character and atmosphere in a few pictures. It’s part exploration, part documentation, and the two feed into each other. It gives an otherwise aimless walk a sense of purpose, and it gives me an excuse to visit new places. Here are some pictures I took on a recent lazy afternoon strolling around Ostuni, for example, the so-called “white city” in Puglia, where all the houses have to be painted white.
I was in Italy, but while I was there I discovered that the French have a word for this kind of urban mooching — “flânerie” — and someone who does it is called a “flâneur”. There’s a whole rich history and literature around the term, and much debate about its exact definition. But flânerie is essentially a mixture of laziness and curiosity, a way of taking in and enjoying the urban landscape. At the time the word was coined, in the mid-19th century, portable cameras did not exist. But there was very much a visual aspect to flânerie, even then. Honoré de Balzac likened it to “the gastronomy of the eye”. Victor Fournel, another French writer, compared flânerie to the creation of a “moving photograph” of the city by walking around in it.
The flâneur is, above all, an observer, enjoying being immersed in the city but also being detached from it. When I first encountered the term I immediately recognised what I’ve been doing as photographic flânerie. And indeed, in the 20th century, with the advent of handheld cameras, an explicit connection was drawn between flânerie and street photography.
As Susan Sontag put it in “On Photography”, “the photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes.” Some people go even further and consider flânerie to be an entire philosophy of life. That’s going a bit far for me. But I am glad to have found the perfect word to describe one of my favourite kinds of photography. I’m a flâneur, and I didn’t even realise it. Are you?