I was hunkered down for part of the holiday with the works of Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama, including “Record No.36” - in Japanese “Kiroku” - the latest in his series of diaristic monographs that date back as far as 1972. This is from that volume:
Moriyama has been around, in many senses. Currently aged 79 he’s taken vast numbers of photographs, published a great many books (if not as many as his pal Araki), and also done a great amount of walking. He may not, strictly speaking, be a street photographer (a term that seems ever more meaningless) but he’s definitely a flaneur. His photographs are a record of his wanderings and also the reason for his wandering.
And of course sometimes he photographs other walkers. And of course some of these walkers are women.
I started digging out some writings and interviews with the great man. There’s this from the afterword to “Record No. 34,” “I am crisscrossing the central Tokyo area taking snapshots in the streets more or less on a daily basis. Within this routine, every once in a while it happens that I am suddenly overcome by a sense of bewilderment, just like a student in his first year at a photography school. What exactly am I trying to see through the finder of my camera? What is that photo that I just shot? It's questions as utterly naïve and elementary as these that occupy my mind in such situations.”
And there’s this from a documentary the Tate Gallery made about him a few years back, “I basically walk quite fast. I like taking snapshots in the movement of both myself and the outside world. When I walk around I probably look like a street dog because after walking around the main roads, I keep wandering around the back streets.”
This is probably his best known picture: of a street dog:
He continues, “My friends or critics are often surprised and ask me why I never got bored walking around for over 50 years. But I never get bored. I often hear it is said that people, even photographers, do their best work when they are in their 20’s and 30’s. I’m 73 now. But I could never see the city with an old man’s eyes, or as if I understood everything.
“Everyone has desires. The quality and the volume of those desires change with age. But that desire is always serious and real. Photography is an expression of those desires …
“I have always felt that the world is an erotic place. As I walk through it my senses are reaching out. And I am drawn to all sorts of things. For me cities are enormous bodies of people’s desires. And as I search for my own desires within them, I slice into time, seeing the moment.”
Well, the erotics of walking and the erotics of photography are not exactly the same, but there’s surely plenty of overlap. Taking pictures of women in the street is currently regarded as a very dodgy activity. I think it’s still OK to look at people you fancy, so long as you don’t touch or say anything appropriate. And taking photographs creates its own set of problem. It’s probably OK if you’re making art, not OK if you go home and lech over the images. But who can read the intentions of the male gaze?
I saw recently that the Christie’s website describes photographer Miroslav Tichy as a flaneur, thus: “From the 1950s to 1986, Tichý took thousands of surreptitious photographs in and around Kyjov, in the Czech Republic. With his wild hair and ragged clothes, locals viewed him as a harmless eccentric — but in many ways his art can be seen as a subversive act in response to a totalitarian regime.
“In the 1950s, he began to focus on photography, using an array of crude homemade cameras … He built his contraptions from scrap — cardboard tubes, tin cans and the like — sealed with tar, and operated by bobbins and dressmaker’s elastic. He cut lenses from plexiglass — even devising his own telephoto lens.
“’These chance encounters, fleeting moments captured on film, have a distinctive Baudelairean flair,’ says Christie’s specialist Amanda Lo Iacono. ‘Indeed what we find so captivating about Tichý’s work today is how the artist acted as the quintessential flaneur, whose practice became inseparable from his way of life.’”
Well, you’ve said a mouthful there, Amanda. Tichy’s “practice” involved wandering the streets, and sometimes hiding in the bushes, taking pictures of women, some of them walking, some of them in various states of undress.
Geoff Dyer in the Guardian says, “Put as simply as possible, he spent his time perving around Kyjov, photographing women. Ideally he'd catch them topless or in bikinis at the local swimming pool; failing that, he'd settle for a glimpse of knee or - the limitations of the camera meant the framing was often askew - ankle.”
Yes, I suppose flaneurism is what flaneurism does. Likewise perving. But that was in another country, and besides the guy is dead.