Walking Photographs: Lisette Model as Flâneur

Written by Evelyn Goessling
Edited by Aimée Tian

As mediators of urban spaces, the flâneur and the photographer do much of the same work. The flâneur is a wanderer and an anonymous explorer of urban spaces. The flâneur originated and thrived both as a literary and real figure in 19th century Paris, where after the Revolution an increase in industrialization, modernization, and commodity production made way for modern bourgeois life.[1] In 1863 Charles Baudelaire famously wrote about the Parisian flâneur in “The Painter of Modern Life,”

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, 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 at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—such are a few of the slightest pleasures of those independent, passionate, impartial nature which the tongue can but clumsily define. […] 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 multiplicities of life and the flickering grace of all elements of life. He is an ‘I’ with an insatiable appetite for the ‘non-I,’ at every instant rendering and explaining it in pictures more living than life itself, which is always unstable and fugitive.[2]

The activity of public spaces such as streets, parks, cafes, and shops provided the flâneur with a modern venue in which to roam, reflect on, and encounter the source of social and political tremors: the people of the city. It is essential to note that the flâneur was typically male, as men had much more public freedom over women, who primarily occupied domestic and private spaces.[3] The anonymous author of an 1862 text on French flâneurism wrote that the flâneur’s mind “is like a sensitive blank photographic plate, ready for any impression which may present itself.”[4] The flâneur appraises public, urban scenes and individuals, ready to negotiate the aesthetics of the experience through a photography-like imagination. Both flâneur and photographer are image-makers who transgress social as well as spatial boundaries. Both curate public, urban landscapes in a process that equally synthesizes and creates the landscape itself via the action of walking and through creative negotiation. Yet as an urban figure, neither the photographer nor the flâneur escape social, economic, and gender hierarchies. Austrian-born photographer Lisette Model (1901-1983) came into photography through exposure through her sister, a photography student. After the First World War Model and her family moved to Nice, where her sister had a working darkroom.[5] There, next to the sea and its wide pedestrian walkways, Model’s photography flourished as she encountered new people and environments. In this essay, I will examine Model as a flâneur, and consider her work as a visual composition of urban spaces in France and New York from 1937 and into the late 1940s.

In this analysis I intend to challenge the male-dominated precedent for discourse on flânerie—the flâneur’s active practice—presented by Walter Benjamin’s 1927 writing The Arcade Project, while also navigating alternate readings on the place of the female within that discourse presented by Griselda Pollock, Janet Wolff, and Deborah Parsons. Lisette Model’s photography and career demonstrate the potential for successful flânerie in which gender is arbitrary, as her success as a social, public figure and her artistic production exhibit that flâneur is not necessarily male. I will not refer to the female flâneur as a flâneuse, in reclamation of the spectrum of gendered experiences that may fall under the category of flânerie, which has developed greatly since Benjamin’s writings. I also will use the pronoun “he” to refer to the photographer and the flâneur, although I use this word with the knowledge that it is this language that excludes the feminine experience historically as well as in Benjamin’s writing, and that there is a particular fallacy of the English language to categorize a non-gendered figure. Lisette Model’s street photography challenges Benjamin’s male conception of the flâneur and fulfills alternate readings and developments of the flâneur as presented by de Certeau, Pollock, Parsons, and Wolff.

In his preeminent writings on the flâneur and flâneurie, Benjamin elaborates on Baudelaire’s original definition and describes the flâneur in a particularly male context and format. This writing firstly circumvents female public presence in the city, and secondly ignores the uniqueness of a female urban observational experience. Benjamin’s flâneur is a “werewolf restlessly roaming a social wilderness”[6] and occupies the dialectic of a “man who feels himself viewed by all and sundry as a true suspect and, on the other side, [a] man who is utterly undiscoverable, the hidden man.”[7] Benjamin’s flâneur is simultaneously predatory (as “werewolf”), as well as invisible, and able to disappear within the crowd. The public female of the early- to mid-twentieth century cannot inhabit this ideal of the flâneur, as the female gender is highly conspicuous and othered within male-dominated public spaces. This comes as a result of “historically variable social systems which produce sexual differentiation,”[8] something that is implicitly evidenced in Benjamin’s exclusion of feminine adjectives or figures. Furthermore, the modern, public woman faced violence as a result of the social ideology popularized in the Weimar period in Germany that fuses the fashionable, public woman with prostitution and sexualization within the context of commodity culture, and the increased commodification of femininity via fashion as well as sex work.[9] In this context, the female acting as flâneur incorporates risks, but these risks did not necessarily limit or lower female flânerie compared to male flânerie.

The female photographer such as Model embodies a unique version of the flâneur that still fulfills the role of flâneur in observational as well as creative activities. Janet Wolff and Griselda Pollock argue that true flânerie is unavailable to the female under Walter Benjamin’s description as well as under the social, historical, and political conditions that restricted females from occupying public spaces.[10][11] However, Pollock’s conclusion that modernity in art “cannot function as given categories to which we add women … [as it] only identifies a masculine viewpoint with the norm and confirms women as other and subsidiary”[12] can be aligned with Deborah Parsons’ argument, which suggests that such discourses are exclusionary in that Benjamin’s flâneur is ambiguous and not necessarily gendered,[13] and that there can in fact be a female flâneur. The female urban observational experience need not be distinguished as a feminine version of a male experience. Rather, I wish to include the spectrum of gendered experience as it relates to social and theoretical conditions of women as embodied in discourses of the public female relating to fashion, art, and sexuality.

Figure 1. Lisette Model, Promenade des Anglais, 1934-1938.

Model’s career as a street photographer follows the historical trajectory of females becoming increasingly visible in public spaces. Benjamin’s writings on the flâneur refer to a male-dominated public arena, with the flâneur occupying a position of male privilege in terms of mobility and anonymity within the crowd. After the First World War, many women entered the field via portraiture photography and as studio assistants to fill the gap left by men who had left for the military.[14] This professional advance opened up creative opportunities to expand the photographic medium from a professional outlet to a creative and artistic outlet. Model’s work as a professional photographer, then, may have not been as affected by the inherently risky visibility attributed to being and working as a female in public. Furthermore, the photographer, even if associated with a studio or magazine, is somewhat liberated from the male experience of modernity that Janet Wolff describes in “The Invisible Flaneuse.” Wolff concludes that the male world is that of institutional and bureaucratic systems constructed by and intended for men, which would give rise to the factory system that further distinguished the private and public spheres.[15] The perambulatory flâneur, and the street photographer, (at least during his walk) is independent of institutions and bureaucracy. He is free to explore, to walk freely, and the distinguishing moment of “work”—the click of the shutter—is a moment of agency. Therefore the flâneur is free from the male aspects of the public sphere that Wolff specifies. Model benefits from this mode, and her expansion of style between Promenade des Anglais—as abrupt, obvious encounters with individualsand the later series Fifth Avenue—as anonymous, fleeting captures of crowdsindicates a professional and personal versatility and mobility that transcends some of the limitations of a public female such as the ability to navigate class hierarchies in a public context.

Figure 2. Lisette Model, Promenade des Anglais, 1934-1938.

Model’s series Promenade des Anglais (1934-38) is a representation of a paved seafront promenade in Nice, France; an image of the city via portraits of its citizens. It includes images of seated men and women: all older, larger, and leisurely bodies that often disregard Model’s lens through a lack of eye contact. This series is particularly flâneuristic in that Model captures an individual within a crowd—the crowd being the group of sitters on the Promenade, yet the crowd is not visible to the viewer (fig. 1, 2, 3, 4). Benjamin conceives a photograph as able to rewrite the past into a distinct moment. In the photograph, notes Benjamin,

The spectator feels an irresistible compulsion to look for the tiny spark of chance, of the here and now, with which reality has, as it were, seared the character in the picture; to find that imperceptible point at which, in the immediacy of that long-past moment, the future so persuasively inserts that, looking back, we may rediscover it.[16]

In Promenade des Anglais Model captures the chance encounter between herself and her subject, thereby materially preserving that moment. The photograph then becomes an artifact. It is a temporal record as well as a record of the artist’s conception of that moment within the crowd.

Figure 3. Lisette Model, Promenade des Anglais, 1934-1938.

Michel de Certeau posits that the flâneur is essential in inscribing, or writing the city. De Certeau’s 1984 text, Walking in the City, elides the flâneur and the artist, in comparing early Renaissance painting to constructing an image: “The desire to see the city preceded the means of satisfying it. Medieval or Renaissance painters represented the city as seen in a perspective that no eye had yet enjoyed.”[17] Following this, the photographer as image-maker also represents an as-yet unseen perspective of the city he depicts. The “optical artifact”[18] of the painting or photograph is a representational image, as the city is a representation of itself in the eye of the viewer. In this way, the view of the city can be constructed and reconstructed at the will of the artist as the city-walkers transform and write the city as an “urban text.”[19] As the flâneur observes, discerns, and distills the mass of urban images of the crowd and buildings he is fomenting an image of the city. In the same way, the photographer represents a moving eye; a mechanical extension of the flâneur’s gaze that creates physical images of the city.

Figure 4. Lisette Model, Promenade des Anglais, 1934-1938.

Gaze and perspective are particular, shared components of flânerie and photography that distinguishes the flâneur from the crowd, and the photographer from his subject. Traditionally, the flâneur translates his vision of the crowd via poetry or other textual writing, whereas the photographer as flâneur creates his image of the crowd through the use of the camera. Model’s camera, the Rolleiflex, had technical characteristics that disrupted the moment of connection between herself and her subject because the twin-lens forced her to look down into the viewfinder from above while somewhat awkwardly adjusting the controls on either side of the camera.[20] This moment of interruption in Model’s optic gaze, as it was shifted to her camera’s gaze, allowed for a slight moment of anonymity from behind the camera. Steeves describes this as a moment of privacy, in which “the camera becomes the photographer’s mask or a sort of upside-down periscope.”[21] The diction of “mask” and “periscope” further emphasizes the camera as a mechanic appendage to the photographer’s image-making, as the poet’s pen and paper function as his image-making.

De Certeau’s theory of the walker writing the city, and subsequently viewing it as an “optical artifact,” intertwines with Benjamin’s idea that observation of a photograph is a mode of rediscovering and rewriting what is represented within an image. Model herself was of the mindset that her photographs were “not framed bits of verifiable reality, but rather transformations or maps of natural appearances, semi-abstract slices of time and place.”[22] In Promenade des Anglais Model presents subjects as somewhat surreal, fleshy objects. There is a doll-like quality to many of the poses (fig. 1), and the way in which the individuals fill the frame emphasize the body in an unreal yet simultaneously larger-than-life fashion. The static poses are reminiscent of the flâneur’s attraction to commodity products as locations of social interaction and unbothered observation. This sense of unreality in Model’s series is also flâneuristic in its re-writing of the everyday image (fig. 1, 3). The flâneur relishes the modern possibility of banal chances and coincidences in public spaces[23], and Model exhibits this by choosing to capture intimate yet mundane moments in public: one man sits asleep in the sun (fig. 1) and a woman tenderly plants a kiss on her dog’s head (fig. 2). The series as a whole, with the subjects’ locked poses, routine actions (and lack of action), and homogenized bodies acts as an erasure of the individuality of each subject, thereby likening the individual to an anonymous member of the crowd.

Figure 5. Lisette Model, Fifth Avenue, 1938-1945.

Model’s technical method further aligned her as a flâneur in that she was able to escape confrontation with her subject, often difficult in photography with the use of other cameras such as the point-and-shoot, or earlier models that required extensive presetting in the moment of capture. Promenade des Anglais presents full-on images of sitting strangers, from an angle that suggests that Model was standing not more than ten feet away. Yet, many of the subjects do not meet the gaze of the camera (fig. 1, 2, 4) or regard it with barely a sidelong glance (fig. 3). In many images the subject’s eyes are hidden or closed, as if they are blind to both the gaze of the camera and Model’s presence. The lack of returned gaze, combined with the stature of the individuals as well as the way they fill the frame, give the impression that Model is a phantom, hardly noticed, blending into the crowd as a true flâneur.

Model’s later series, Fifth Avenue (1938-45), is even more apparent in its flânerie through its depiction of the anonymous crowd. Instead of putting the camera at eye-level, Model moves her gaze low to the ground to capture the walking feet of New York’s crowds. This lower part of the body removes almost all sense of individuality from her subject. Individuals are deliberately immersed in the crowd, instead of sought out as in Promenade des Anglais. In this series, the legs and feet are blurred, while the background car is depicted in stasis (fig. 5) and the blurring of the leg in motion becomes very abstract (fig. 6). Model’s visual manipulations work to “write” the city as de Certeau describes, as a blurry, crowded experience, but also while indicating her position as flâneur within various public conditions. In figure 5 the sidewalk, street, and cars fill the frame, drawing the eye away from the blurred leg in the foreground and emphasizing the importance of the urban environment to the photographer-as-flâneur. Contrastingly, in figure 6 legs dominate the frame, overwhelming the viewer in the motion and vastness of the crowd.

Figure 6. Lisette Model, Fifth Avenue, 1938-1945.

Throughout her career Model demonstrated an interest in capturing the spirits of strangers and their city. Promenade des Anglais and Fifth Avenue presents Model’s flânerie in different ways. Promenade des Anglais is upfront with its subjects, and Model presents these subjects as an unspoken element of the crowd while framing them in such a way that their distinguishing characteristics are almost carnivalized, effectively re-integrating them into an almost illusory and anonymous group. Fifth Avenue takes a more literal approach to depicting the urban crowd, by blurring individual movements as well as signifiers. In her photography, Model succeeds in fulfilling many of the archetypes of the flâneur in spite of both Benjamin’s and Wolff and Pollock’s gendered limitations of the flâneur. As Baudelaire described the perfect flâneur, Model is at home in the crowd, where the energy and movement of individuals drive her creative livelihood. The female professional is inherently vulnerable in public spaces, and the female photographer is not immune to that implied risk. Yet, photography as flânerie is not limited to the male sphere, and Model’s exemplary body of work demonstrates flânerie as open, abundant, and diverse.

Esther Leslie, “Flâneurs in Paris and Berlin,” in Leisure, Consumption and Culture: Histories of Leisure. (London: Berg Publishers, 2002), 62.
[2] Baudelaire, Charles. “The Painter of Modern Life,” in The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, edited by Jonathan Mayne. (London: Phiadon Press, 1995), 9.
[3] Janet Wolff, “The Invisible Flaneuse: Women and the Literature of Modernity,” in Theory, Culture & Society, November 1985. (Sage Social Science Collections), 37. Web.
[4] Leslie, “Flâneurs in Paris and Berlin,” 62.
[5] George Steeves, Lisette Model: A Performance in Photography. (Halifax, NS: MSVU Art Gallery, 2011), 23.
[6] Walter Benjamin, “The Arcades Project,” in GERM 357: Walking in Literature, ed. Professor Tove Holmes (Montreal: McGill University, 2016), 95.
[7] Benjamin, “The Arcades Project,” 97.
[8] Griselda Pollock, “Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity,” in ARTH 338: Modern Art and Theory: WWI-WWII Risk and Excess: Women Artists between the Wars, ed. Dr. Julia Skelly (Montreal: McGill University, 2016), 32.Pollock, “Modernity and the spaces of femininity,” 26.
[9] Dr. Julia Skelly, “(Women) Artist in the Weimar Republic: The Prostitute & More.” Class lecture, in ARTH 338: Modern Art and Theory: WWI-WWII Risk and Excess: Women Artists between the Wars, (Montreal, November 8 2016).
[10] Pollock, “Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity,” 26.
[11] Wolff, “The Invisible Flaneuse: Women and the Literature of Modernity,” 37.
[12] Pollock, “Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity,” 37.
[13] Deborah L. Parsons, introduction to Streetwalking the Metropolis: Women, the City, and Modernity. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 4.
[14] Naomi Rosenblum, “Photography between the wars: Europe, 1920-1940” in A History of Women Photographers, (New York: Abbeville Press, 1994), 117.
[15] Wolff, “The Invisible Flaneuse: Women and the Literature of Modernity,” 37.
[16] Walter Benjamin, “A Short History of Photography,” in Screen, 1972. (Oxford University Press: Oxford Journals), 7.
[17] Michel de Certeau, “Walking in the City,” in GERM 357: Walking in Literature, ed. Professor Tove Holmes (Montreal: McGill University, 2016), 92.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid, 93.
[20] George Steeves, Lisette Model: A Performance in Photography. (Halifax, NS: MSVU Art Gallery, 2011), 23.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Leslie, “Flâneurs in Paris and Berlin,” 62.

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