A Photographer Reviews Stephen Scobie’s The Measure of Paris


 A Photographer Reviews Stephen Scobie’s The Measure of Paris (University of Alberta Press, 2010)

 by Larry E. Fink, Professor of English, Hardin-Simmons University

          Before I talk about Scobie’s book, I need to identify what style of photography is relevant to the book’s topic, which is Paris and the literature that has grown out of the act of walking in the city.  And that style is street photography.  Most people have seen a lot of street photography, perhaps without knowing what to call it.  Recently–about three years ago–a lot of people were reminded of what it is, and others introduced to it, when a great American photographer was discovered–posthumously.  At least two collections of Vivian Maier’s stunning pictures have been published already. If you need to rent a car for your vacations click here.

          Briefly, the primary subject of this approach is people, at rest or in motion, alone or with others, going about the every-day activities of life:  walking, sitting, standing; waiting, meeting, and parting; working and playing; reading, eating, talking, listening, laughing, daydreaming, shopping, sightseeing, etc.–ordinary life, usually in public settings, often outdoors.  The emphasis is not on the subject’s personal identity, as in portraiture.  And unlike strict photojournalism, there is no news here, rather, the commonplace.  Unlike travel photography, that aims to entice the viewer to visit a certain place or to fondly remember it or daydream about it, location is relatively unimportant, though busy cities with interesting architecture are commonly seen in these works.  And while street photographs can serve to document clothing styles or automobile design, these details are subordinate to the artistic elements; in strict documentary photography, content trumps art.  We strive to capture a fleeting composition, a beautiful but brief arrangement of lines, shapes, and tones–balanced within a rigid frame.

Obviously, the best way to explain it is to look at it.  Andre Kertész (1894-1985) can be considered the first great street photographer.  Kertesz was Hungarian and spent the years 1925-1936 in Paris, before moving to New York.  The more famous photographer, Cartier-Bresson wrote, “Whatever we have done, Kertész did first.”  What did he do first?  That’s like asking, “What makes a great street photograph?”.  The answer is strong composition, a balanced arrangement of geometrical shapes, human forms standing out against the angularity of the urban landscape; precise timing that captures fleeting beauty, sometimes an ironic juxtaposition of subject and background, often a sense of timelessness. And, of course, masterful handling of light and all its effects.  With the list on the second page of your handout, perhaps you can spot some of these qualities in the works I’ll show you.  Even looking at them briefly, I think you will find your attention directed around the entire image, by lines that lead you from one shape to another and then another.


Perhaps the photographer most widely known and admired by other photographers is the French artist, so famous that his initials alone identify him:  “HCB”, Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004).  There have been four major exhibits of his work at New York’s Museum of Modern Art since 1947, the most recent in 2010.  He was a photojournalist who covered many of the major news events of the 40s, 50s, and 60s, but he is most admired for his so-called humanistic pictures, his pictures of everyday life, his street photography.  He was the quintessential humanist, but as the following quotation suggests, he was obsessed with geometry and composition, with intuitively capturing harmony and balance within the frame lines of his viewfinder.  He wrote, “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.”  Does he sound like a poet?  The comparison has been made many times.


Another great Paris-based figure is Robert Doisneau (1912-1994).  Unlike Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau did not travel the world photographing but concentrated on Paris, creating many of the most iconic images of life in the city.  His best-known pictures tend to exude a bit more warmth and humor than Cartier-Bresson’s.


Finally, a contemporary Paris-based street photographer–American, Peter Turnley.  A native of Fort Wayne, Indiana, Turnley worked as an assistant to Doisneau and knew Cartier-Bresson.  For more than twenty years he was the leading photographer of political upheaval and wars for Newsweek, returning to his Paris apartment to rest and photograph the beauty of the city.  These days, he concentrates on street photography, regularly leading small workshops in Paris and other cities around the world.  In 2010 I took two workshops with Turnley in Paris and New York, in preparation for a course I’ve since developed and taught.  Here are a few pictures from his book entitled Parisians.


Stephen Scobie is a Canadian poet, literature scholar, and editor born in 1943 in Scotland who relocated to Canada in 1965.  A PhD from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, he taught at the University of Alberta and  the University of Victoria; recently retired; founding editor of Longspoon Press; elected member of the Royal Society of Canada; the recipient of the 1980 Governor General’s Award for the book McAlmon’s Chinese Opera, etc., etc.   He’s also written two or three books on Bob Dylan.  And he lived in Paris for various extended periods of time.  I had never heard of him, and read The Measure of Paris simply because it is about Paris and literature.

The book, as the note on the back cover says, is a mixture of history, criticism, poetry, and memoir.  It also describes Scobie as a “flâneur extraordinaire”.  In fact, what holds this odd book together is the figure of the flâneur and the practice of flânerie.  The denotative meaning of the French word [flâneur] is stroller or browser, while connotations include idler or loafer.  But the word carries a lot more freight than these definitions suggest.  In fiction and non-fiction about Paris, the flâneur is almost as recognizable a figure as the French waiter or the concierge, the gendarme.  As Keith Tester concisely explains, “Flânerie, the activity of strolling and looking which is carried out by the flâneur, is a recurring motif in the literature, sociology and art of urban, and most especially metropolitan, existence.  Originally, the figure of the flâneur was tied to a specific time and place:  Paris, the capital of the nineteenth century as it was conjured by Walter Benjamin in his analysis of Charles Baudelaire” (1).   The book’s title–a pun on the mythological choice of Paris, of course–also refers to measuring the city on foot, walking its streets.  Essentially, Scobie argues that the books he’s discussing are in part the creative by-products of walking in Paris.  A glance at the table of contents suggests how central flânerie is in each section of the book.  Part I provides historic background, how Baron Haussman’s mid-19th-century redesign of the city encouraged walking and looking.  Part II is the first of Scobie’s autobiographical sections.  Part III is his literary analysis of several fellow Canadian writers’ portrayals of the city, largely from the flâneur’s point of view.  Parts IV and V treat other writers’ pedestrian experiences–including Gertrude Stein’s.  Scobie closes his book with more autobiography, touchingly recounting life in Paris with his wife.  This strange mix of materials is beautifully and intelligently executed.

Over and over, Scobie’s explanation of the connection between walking and creating reminded me of my own experiences as a street photographer.  And his very learned book directed me to other works that made this connection clearer.  By far, what I enjoyed most was Baudelaire’s forty-page essay from around 1860, “The Painter of Modern Life” because he directly links flânerie–walking and looking—to the creation of visual art.  His prime example is the painter Constantin Guys.  Baudelaire dubs Guys the painter of modern life.  Guys was a sketch artist and watercolor painter who sold his work to French and English magazines, a  journalist/artist with a nearly-photographic memory.  In addition to covering the Crimean War of the 1850s, he was the ultimate flâneur, strolling the streets of Paris day and night capturing in memory scenes of other strollers, especially the fashionable and disreputable.  Then he would go home and quickly sketch those fleeting street scenes from memory alone.  Over and over I found Baudelaire praising qualities in Guys that are the essence of street photography.  Here’s an example:  “Monsieur G. has deliberately filled a function which other artists disdain . . . .  He has gone everywhere in quest of the ephemeral, the fleeting forms of beauty in the life of our day, the characteristic traits of which, with the reader’s permission, we have called ‘modernity.'”  And here’s another:  “The aim for him is to extract from fashion the poetry that resides in its historical envelope, to distil the eternal from the transitory”(qtd. in Tester 6).  And, “. . . he is the painter of the passing moment and of all the suggestions of eternity it contains” (“Painter” 5).


Scobie’s book revealed to me a set of ideas that have been out there for a long time—the connection between walking and creativity, but more important for me, I learned that the practicing street photographer is an art-making flâneur.  The more I read, the more convinced I became that this label fits.  He is a passionate, obsessive observer.  He is in the crowd, but not part of it.  He wants to be invisible, but he can’t be.  All of these describe the street photographer at work.  Anyone interested in Paris or literature associated with Paris will find The Measure of Paris enjoyable and useful, but for me reading it was the beginning of an ongoing revelation.