Susan Sontag in her essay, On Photography (1973) describes the photographer as a Baudelairean flâneur:

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. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world “picturesque.”

This is best exemplified by photographers I admire: André Kertész and Henri Cartier-Bresson, celebrated by Roland Barthes in his essay, La chambre claire (trans. Camera Lucida, 1980).

The smartphone camera, with its handy portability, enables the opportunistic flâneur to capture what Cartier-Bresson calls the “decisive moment.”

Dumaguete, Philippines (2015)

The creative act lasts but a brief moment, a lightning instant of give-and-take, just long enough for you to level the camera and to trap the fleeting prey in your little box.

Spontaneity comes from the fleetingness of the moment, but also, as Kertész explains, from the instinctual eye of the photographer, that split-second recognition of the photographic composition:

The moment always dictates in my work. What I feel, I do. This is the most important thing for me. Everybody can look, but they don’t necessarily see. I never calculate or consider. I see a situation and I know that it’s right, even if I have to go back to get the proper lighting.

Not everyone with a smartphone camera, however, is a flâneur. It involves the cultivation of what Balzac calls “the gastronomy of the eye,” a deliberate stance of Epicurean pleasure-seeking. If photography is an art, its delights are in seeing. It is seeing elevated to an art form–an art of seeing.


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