In an article on Eurozine, Karl Palmas fascinatingly reflected on Gilles Deleuze’s attraction for surf, as expressed by the French philosopher in a 1985 interviews: as opposed to ‘old sports’ in which
we are the source of the movement. Running, putting the shot, and so on: effort, resistance, with a starting point, a lever ... All the new sports – surfing, windsurfing, hang-gliding – take the form of entering into an existing wave. There's no longer an origin as starting point, but a sort of putting-into-orbit. The key thing is how to get taken up in the motion of a big wave, a column of rising air, to 'get into something' instead of being the origin of an effort.
In Palmas words,
Deleuze goes on to contrast these new habits of sport with the old habits of thought still prevalent in contemporary philosophy. Rather than creating concepts in relation to movement and becoming, philosophy still reflects upon that which is supposedly eternal and fixed.
This radical becoming, something we could roughly refer as the flow of existence, is akin to Henri Bergson’s notion of duration:
In Bergson's thought, "the immobile" denotes matter; the actual world of things perceived and understood by humans. "The mobile", on the other hand, denotes duration; the "virtual" processes that Bergson calls "the true evolution, the radical becoming" that escapes us
This ever-escaping virtual can only be approached through intuition as the method by which we make use of our own duration to affirm and immediately to recognise the existence of other durations, above or below us. That is, through which we ‘surf’ through reality, keeping the pace of the radical becoming of life.
Another French philosopher, Henri Lefebvre, in the last years of his life embarked upon a project he termed rhythmanalysis, that is, the study of the rhythms and flows of urban life, melodies of routines and ruptures forming the pattern of urban existence. Commuters walking to the train station, passers-by walking absent-mindedly, children running around a fountain, people chatting on a bench, runners, beggars, but also the legal regulations, the unwritten rules, opening and closing times of shops. Lefebvre would look at these flows from a detached position, like a window, seeking to extrapolate from the differences and repetition of these multiple practices the hidden patterns produced by – as well as regulating – them.
Lefebvre’s window, however, is a bit too detached, somewhat Cartesian, something like looking at people surfing from the beach, studying their movements without actually understanding them. Surely interesting, compelling, even funny, Lefebvre’s window is still too comfortable and too static: surfing with thought requires a bigger effort, one that Deleuze
likens ... to an apprenticeship, and to the process of learning to swim – being forced to coordinate one's body with other modi
This is what street photographers are, surfers in the melodic fabric of urban life, uncompromisingly mingled with the urban flows, always looking for ruptures, patterns, tipping points, routines, that everyday virtuality which always escapes, always overlooked by the passive gaze with which we walk, daily, through our lives. Street photography is just that, artistic immersion into the smooth space of the city: nothing mysterious, esoteric or mystic, just an art of ‘going with the flow’, encapsulated not in Henri-Cartier Bresson’s quest for the ‘decisive moment’, but rather in Garry Winogrand’s “continuously chasing after the eternal nowness of life itself in all its raw, unmediated energy”, as Sean O’Hagan puts it in recent article on the Observer.
Street photography is both a ‘genre’ in itself and, in some sense, transversal to the whole history of photography. Taking inspiration from Friedlander’s, Winogrand’s and Meyerowitz’s 60s age d’or of street photography, Sean O’Hagan reflects on the state of the art of street photography today: whilst the genre is undergoing a vibrant, artistic renaissance, is also facing ever-increasing restrictions, stemming from different set of anxieties, claims, panics. Intersecting concerns such as terrorism, surveillance, paedophilia, intrusion and privacy mean that the unrestrained freedom enjoyed by street photography 40 years ago is today unthinkable, as the photographer must continuously negotiate his/her way through draconian laws, suspicious policemen and concerned citizens. These contradictory trajectories are intersected by yet another one, the democratisation or perhaps, less optimistically, bastardisation of street photography into a widespread DIY practice, allowed by the availability of cheap video-devices, most notably mobile phones.
It seems that the less tolerated photography is, when practiced by individual, the more is accepted, and practiced, by institutions. As this modern version of Baudelaire’s flaneur (equipped with camera instead of notebook, that is) is increasingly marginalised and criminalised, the same practice is taken on more and more ubiquitously by public and private institutions, with UK’s all-encompassing street surveillance and Google Street View as just two most stunning examples of this dubious double standard. Perhaps this is the kind of control that Gilles Deleuze reflects upon in his brief but hugely influential Postscript on the Societies of Control, i.e. the shift from discipline to control, from a static, panoptical form of surveillance to dynamic, insidious modulation of the apparatus of control in continuous adaption onto the different flows and rhythms of urban life. From panopticon to street photography: surfing the street, going with the flow – except that it is now institutions of control, not individuals, who are surfing, with the Law providing them with the exclusive right to do so.
Contemporaneously hijacked by public and private institutions and criminalised, as well as caricatured in the Facebook-fuelled frenzy to record & share every bit of existence: is there still room for street photography? The answer is yes, now more than ever, in the urban experience subjected to image overload, we need the moving eye of the street photographer, the urban surfer able to effortlessly immerge himself in the patterns of urban life, making sense of the multiple contradiction of the genre, bordering between skills and luck, intrusion and observation, voyeurism and exploration, art galleries and oblivion, both natural and difficult at the same time, just like surfing, or skating – incidentally the former profession of one of the promising photographer of the new generation, Matt Stuart.
It is in this capacity for glimpsing the radical becoming of everyday experience that lies the potentiality of street photography to subvert the taken-for-grantedness of the everyday, not simply observing but, as Stephen Gill,
reacting to a place that I had stumbled on, and the place completely moulded and shaped the work. I was reacting, really, rather than going out looking.
This potential is not only artistic but also political, and not simply in the commonsensical sense of photography as a means to keep authorities on check – street photography is also more than this, as testified for instance by the work of Stephen Gill’s himself, able to challenge the LO 2012’s vision of East End as ‘wasteland’ to be regenerated – by showing the inner, oft-overlooked uniqueness of Hackney Wick’s fields, markets, canals and marshes. This is the potential which is threatened by institutional power and moral panic and even, more disturbingly, taken over by those very institutions. It is against such a threat that street photography has to be celebrated –not simply as a basic freedom to take picture, but also as a form of art able to rescue us from the (political?) numbness of city-life.
Some of Gary Winogrand's pictures are currently exhibited at the Tampa Museum of Art, FL