23 Jan 2011

the reluctant flâneur

One of the topics raised in my street photography talk at Photofusion last year was the approach of setting yourself a project as a street photographer, working to rules, taking pictures for a particular purpose, versus a more aimless, wandering style. I'd originally, and a little arrogantly, put myself in the latter category.

Setting limits surely contradicts the whole ethos of street photography? The romantic tradition of the flâneur predicates a reckless abandon to chance. There's no plan of action or premeditation. Everything has equal significance before the steady gaze of the impartial, impassioned observer.

Well, with a little more thought on my part, and the purpose of this website, despite those ambitions I have a number of conditions surrounding my work that mean I do not so neatly portray the free wheelin' style of the boulevardier.

And, as is the fashion of the web, I'll turn them into a list (and include yet another gratuitous French reference).
Recipe for Street Photography à la Sean McDonnell
black & white
single lens
West End
natural light
don't go back
Season well and simmer for 25 years, stirring occasionally.
I've now come to a point where I'm thinking about people. Who do or don't I take pictures of?

The mélange of social classes is a defining characteristic of street photography. What attracts me to London's West End in particular is that mix of shopper, worker, student, tourist, day tripper, native (and all the subtle classifications between) thrown into eachother's company.

However the privileges of the city are granted by invitation only. London's better than a lot of cities but access and navigation for the less physically able is restrictive. The explicit and implicit presence of authority and surveillance, encourages a conformity of appearance and behaviours and, by implication, draws attention to and discourages those who deviate.  Flipping this around I can't ignore the corresponding position I hold as a single, white, male on the street; one of the silent, invisible, majority, able to go about his business with relative impunity.

When I look at my work I like the diversity of people I see. I feel proud that London is a city where, in spite of the reservations I've touched on, it is a city to roam. However I'm mindful that freedom, and the freedom to record it, is hard won and precious.

Well I don't quite know how I've ended up talking about liberty, equality and fraternity...but then again perhaps I do.
À bientôt, mes amis!

1 comment:

  1. Agreed, Sean.

    "Steetown Neighbourhoods" is a very personal life project in street photography of mine. I do it with a particular purpose to show off the city of Hamilton by way of this genre. Part of my approach; however, is still typical street photography in which I take my time walking through the city and exploring its places, spaces and goings on as a Flâneur.

    It is possible to do both.