Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Is the 'Hipster' the New 'Flaneur'?

A photobook sent to the author by an anonymous sender

She walks along Glebe Point Road, wishing she could live in one of those adorable terrace houses and be walking distance to Gleebooks, Central Station, and the eccentricties of Newtown. Such wishful thinking involves conveniently glossing over the high cost of rentals in the area, her new job in a regional city, and the bittersweet memories of traversing those paths with a past flame. As if on cue to dispel such thoughts, she fishes out her recently purchased Diana F+ camera (an analog camera manufactured by Lomography), fires the attached flash, and aims at a shop sign advertising Asian groceries.

She hopes the apolitical hipsterdom epitomised by her Diana is at least partially overcome by the ethnic marking of her subjects. Most of all, she tries to reassure herself that her resurgent interest in street photography and reflective shop windows in urban spaces is not a mere affectation, and not too ironic for her self-righteous academic alter ego. Something tells her that this poetics of the personal is imbued with the political; that her roaming of the streets as a woman (of colour) armed with fancy cameras is nothing short of an overthrow of the power relations of the public gaze. She is a voyeur who looks as well as appears. Both John Berger, and Germaine Greer would approve!

But she can't say the same for her folks who would rather she have a roaming companion at all times, or her close friends who would admonish her for taking late trains and wandering into 'dodgy' suburbs. She dislodges her discomfort with this thought by turning to her own version of worry beads - the camera reel dial, and turns it to prepare to shoot a passing cyclist with a wicker basket full of fresh veggies. Even hipsters eat bok choy.

She recalls trying to make herself invisible at a Vietnamese grocery store near her new apartment. Perhaps it was the sheer size of her Canon 600D that made the store owner abandon his ledger book to come ask her if she was looking for something in particular. 'Coffee', she answered, recalling the velvety texture of the ca phe da (iced coffee) she had tried in Marrickville before officially moving to New South Wales, and wondering why she didn't carry a camera around then.

Perhaps she was trying to make memories again, to feel settled in her new surroundings, yet unsettled enough to reawaken her creativity. Perhaps she wanted to be a slightly belated backpacker of sorts so as not to miss out on the youthful joys of leisurely exploration. Perhaps she also wanted to appropriate the streets of inner city Sydney, and its 'ethnic' suburbs such as Parramatta and Harris Park for the solitary coloured woman; to proclaim that we don't just walk around in groups or pairs, that we don't always have spouses and prams in tow. Perhaps she wanted her photographs to tell the tale of the contemporary flaneuse - a woman who cares about her mind and her accessories, but doesn't just visit the shopping mall.

On the train ride home, the iPad replaces the camera, and the researcher takes over. I find out that the flaneur of 19th century Paris was male, privileged, and known to be a 'connoisseur of the streets'. There has been recent interest amongst feminist art historians and literary scholars suggesting that there were also female equivalents of the flaneur during this era, but that the worlds they inhabited (and hence their viewing lenses) were different from those of the men. In the contemporary western world, the idea of flanerie appears to be undergoing a resurgence, particularly in the blogosphere ( see, for instance, Modern Flaneurs) and in street and fashion photography.

I switch off from all devices and take a look at my co-passengers. I realise that I am still possibly distant yet curious, the classic yet updated flaneur. I also reason that Baudelaire's notion of modernity (and its association with flanerie) is as applicable to contemporary Sydney as it once was to an urbanising Paris. This is because my world, and that of many other men and women of my generation constantly on the move for work, love and travel is inherently 'ephemeral, contingent, fugitive'. Our acts of looking through the course of these journeys are still intertwined with our race, class and gender identities. But perhaps these acts, and the ways in which they are documented, are a little bit freer now. And, there is newfound creative pleasure in such ambivalence.