I must let my senses wander as my thoughts, my eyes see without looking. Carlyle said that how to observe was to look, but I say it is rather to see, and the more you look the less you will observe . . . .What I need is not to look at all, but a true sauntering of the eye.
Henry David Thoreau
The flâneur’s tendency toward detached but aesthetically attuned observation has brought the term into the literature of photography, particularly street photography. The street photographer is seen as one modern extension of the urban observer described by nineteenth century journalist Victor Fournel before the advent of the hand-held camera:
This man is a roving and impassioned daguerreotype that preserves the least traces, and on which are reproduced, with their changing reflections, the course of things, the movement of the city, the multiple physiognomy of the public spirit, the confessions, antipathies, and admirations of the crowd. (“Ce qu’on voit dans les rues de Paris”, What one sees on the streets of Paris)
The most notable application of flâneur to street photography probably comes from Susan Sontag in her 1977 essay, On Photography. She describes how, since the development of hand-held cameras in the early 20th century, the camera has become the tool of the 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.’ (pg. 55)