Monday, December 29, 2014

The Photographer of Modern Life—Part I

Unlike other visual arts, the sine qua non of photography is that you have to be there. Photography demands presence, and wanderlust is not only a common affliction of photographers, but necessary for its practice.
The photographer of modern life needs very little to accomplish the task.
A small camera with a fixed lens is a great tool.
Wanderlust doesn't have to be grand trips to exotic locations, however. "Travel" for a photographer is better thought of as any space in which the photographer works. The key to successful seeing is to treat those spaces as all the same. It's impossible to develop your artistic skills of surreal seeing if you only do it under specific circumstances. Instead, treat your art with respect wherever you are.

Creativity exists at the crossroads of conscious action and surreal thought. We create art when we've placed ourselves in a place which not only matches our surreal thoughts, but allows us to capture them. Like the practice of any other activity about which we care, there are discrete things we can do to increase the likelihood of matching our surreal, artistic ideas with situations unfolding before us. Our method for increasing this likelihood is to practice being a Photographer of Modern Life, and we designed our Street Psych courses around the fundamental concept that the world around us at any given moment is beautiful, and worthy of observation.

These values were elevated to the status of an approach to literary criticism in the essays of Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, and Walter Benjamin, among others. To describe the approach, these authors used the term flâneur. The word is French, and means, roughly, "stroller" or "lounger." Being a flâneur is a state of physical behavior matched to a philosophical attitude. In his essay, "The Painter of Modern Life" (to the title of which we pay homage), Baudelaire used an illustrator, to whom he referred as Mr. G., to describe the philosophy and approach of the flâneur:

The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito. The lover of life makes the whole world his family, just like the lover of the fair sex who builds up his family from all the beautiful women that he has ever found, or that are or are not—to be found; or the lover of pictures who lives in a magical society of dreams painted on canvas. Thus the lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy. Or we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life.

Charles Baudelaire, "The Painter of Modern Life".

Although Baudelaire's description is rich and we could spend many thousands of words decompressing it, for our present purposes of defining The Photographer of Modern Life the important aspects of being a flâneur can be summarized by a few salient features:
  • surrealism
  • objective observation
  • shifting visual-perceptual states
  • humanism

Surrealism


Everything starts with an idea, and ideas come from the connections made among the disparate bits of information in our minds. The more information we have, the more connections we can make. More usefully, however, the more relevant the information we have to the place we are in, the more likely the connections are to help us both see and understand. Accordingly, The Photographer of Modern Life fills the mind with information both historical and literary. Local newspapers are a great source of information about a place, as are novels, television programs, and movies. But fill your mind not only with intellectual information. It's also vital to have awareness of the place: the sensations of the weather, the scents of the food, the music, the pace of the citizens. It's the total of this information that will generate your perspective about the place, and lead to the ability to see what is truly unique.

It's a good bet that wherever you go, you'll be able to find a paper in your native language.

Observation


Once you're in a new place, the first step (pun intended) in being The Photographer of Modern Life is to have a broad perspective about the place you're in. Curiosity is the hallmark of the flâneur, so be open to the most humanistic levels of observation. At this highest level of observation, you're trying to increase the possibility of finding situations which match a surrealist idea in your mind. Thus, you need to physically move in your environment.

Walk where the locals walk and the architecture will make more sense.
Move as the local do and the environment reveals itself.
Our goal is to make this process as automatic as possible. We want the least amount of conscious thought as possible, because it is conscious thought which interferes with observation and the awareness of our creative ideas. An excellent method to engage in automatism is act as the flâneur and integrate yourself into the place. This doesn't need much thought. Instead, follow the axiom: when in Rome, do as the Romans do. When you engage in the environment as the locals do, many great things are activated in your mind. You will have empathy with the surroundings, and that empathy will lead to understanding about the "why's" of the people around you.

As Yogi Berra might say, you can see a lot by observing.
That's especially true if you watch from the local restaurants.
The process of integrating yourself into a place at this stage is a physical one: enter the flow of things, and then withdraw and observe so that you can assimilate the experience. This is as easy as putting yourself in the crowd and then finding a cafe and sitting for a short while. Iterate the process through your day.

Visual-Perceptual States


As you integrate yourself into the environment and engage in the process of participation and then observation, the place will begin to reveal itself to you on deeper and deeper levels. You will start to perceive patterns of behavior and activity. As these new aspects become apparent you can make sense of them with the concepts of proxemics, which will help you not only interpret the physical behavior or your subjects, but to also anticipate their activity so that you can time decisive moments.

If you observe long enough, you can time a joke even in a language foreign to you.
Mirroring the people around you causes beneficial visual-perceptual effects to take place. You will perceive not only what is important to the people in your environment, but you will also perceive what they avoid. Based on the timing and flow of activity, you will appreciate the structure of a place, including its architecture, gardens, and traffic-ways.

Humanism


Engaging in this process, you'll be attracted to this place or that as your surreal ideas find their expression in the environment around you. As a flâneur, you will take your time in exploring these situations, letting your curiosity guide you. And as you engage with your curiosity, the elements of attraction will become obvious to your mind and you'll find yourself taking pictures without even thinking about it. This process of engagement eliminates the judgments and preconceptions of the tourist and allows you to see a place with a view to accepting and understanding its inhabitants. Accordingly, your images will reflect the aspects of the people around you which embody their particular culture, but which resonate on the broadest, most humanist scale.

Proxemic patterns are everywhere once you shift from the Kodak Picture Spots to participating in the place. 
The mindset of being a flâneur is the result of the letting the mind direct the body. In the next article, we will look at a literary example that goes even further in demonstrating how adopting the approach of the flâneur can help you become The Photographer of Modern Life.

[Don't forget: our Street Psych courses are based on these concepts!]