A few years back I completed a diploma in photography. Much to my disappointment at the time virtually all of the course was theoretically based rather than practical and a grounding in art history and appreciation was taken for granted it seems. Without an art foundation course under my belt I struggled if I’m honest. Exploring personal motivation, history, art theory and influences amongst other topics I eventually fell out with my tutor as he wouldn’t (couldn’t?) accept “because I liked it” as a motivation for making an image. When I started inventing motivations to satisfy the academic requirements I knew this wasn’t something for me and so rather than complete the full degree I took my credits and the award of the diploma. However, there were two subjects that did pique my interest and that I have explored further since. These were psychogeography and the idea of exploring the periphery of our towns and living spaces which were given the label “edgelands”. In this post I want to consider psychogeography, hopefully I will return to the edgelands concept in a later post.
I wrote a full, hopefully academic, essay on psychogeography back in 2015 or thereabouts and much to my frustration have been unable to find it despite my best efforts. So, I will need to start afresh. And I might just ditch the academic rigour whilst I’m doing it. 😀
Psychogeography was founded in 1955 by Guy Debordas as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals”. It is also a term much associated with photography these days, particularly in the academic environment. As far as I see it, there appear to be two main ways in which photographers approach this genre, although I doubt that there is one “true” way to approach the activity.
For the likes of Pedro Guimares in his project ‘Bluetown’, and Marco Barbieri’s project ‘Our Drinking Habits’, both have set out a code as the basis of their wandering. Guimares’s code determines the location he will stop at to take a photo, with each photo in the series linked by this code. Barbieri’s code is the choice of object (ie evidence of street drinking) before he then wanders to find that evidence.
The alternative approach is to decide on an area to wander to find what catches the photographer’s eye. A series is then bound by the link between place, photographer and choice of subjects chosen in that area. Debra Fabricius’s project ‘Urban Drift’ is a good example of this approach where she wanders along a pre-defined area and photographs what catches her eye. This creates a commentary on that place along with its relationship to the photographer.
Author Will Self in his book “Psychogeography” noted that the psychogeographic fraternity is typically middle-aged males “armed with notebooks and cameras”. Now, I probably resemble that remark, although perhaps a bit older than the typical! He also likened psychogeographers to “local historians with an attitude problem”. Make of that what you will!
The concept of the flaneur is a key one within psychogeography. The French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) described the flaneur as a person who walks their environment in order to experience it. As I was writing that now-lost essay I realised that a lot of my approach to my hobby fits very neatly within psychogeographic principles.
Occasionally I will undertake what I call a “9 in 45” where I will decide on a starting point and then walk, often at random, for 45 minutes, stopping every five minutes, exactly, to make a photograph (within 60 seconds) of my current surroundings. Nine photographs therefore in forty five minutes. I believe that this too fits within the spirit of psychogeography as related to photography. Since the start of the pandemic the majority of my photography has been urban in nature, and almost exclusively the result of random wandering around Elland turning left and right as the whim takes me.
For me a wander with a camera is in a sense a form of therapy. Walking, exercising, looking and seeing, remembering and thinking are all potential attributes of this form of photography to my mind. It’s an opportunity to turn off the noise that constitutes twenty-first century living. A perambulation around the streets of my childhood or any of the towns and cities in which I’ve lived and work will throw up many memories and feelings. Walking along the local stretch of canal however is both familiar and alien. Familiar in that I’ve walked these towpaths countless times in the last few years yet alien as they stir no real memories for me – as yet. I still manage to “lose” myself however, pondering the history of the canal or losing myself in memories of different places and times. The longer I live here however, the more localised my memories are becoming and the canal is slowly but surely becoming less alien and evolving into the familiar.
For those of you wanting a diversion from pure photography I can highly recommend digging into this subject a little deeper. It is possible, if desired, to avoid the overly academic and to relate elements of psychogeography to the photography of many of us so there is something for everyone regardless of whether you like the theoretical, academic or simply the practical.
In particular an account of the flaneur may well strike a chord for some of you!
All three images taken on the day this post was written, within ten minutes as I walked from car park to dentist.
8 thoughts on “Psychogeography”
This piece really resonated with me. Interesting names for what I think many of us do. I call it vernacular photography in the suburbs I live in. Also, a great way to exercise not only your body but your mind on your own sense of place. Not sure you seen this so I’ll share. Many other good reads on the site too. https://www.justplace.us/fertiledarkness
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Thanks Maureen … I’m off to check that out!
“For me a wander with a camera is in a sense a form of therapy. Walking, exercising, looking and seeing, remembering and thinking are all potential attributes of this form of photography to my mind. It’s an opportunity to turn off the noise that constitutes twenty-first century living.” This resonates with me. I took my camera out on a regular walking route recently, looking for symmetry in the landscape – it felt like a meditation.
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Nicely written Dave, I’m sure you will have many photographers nodding in agreement as they read this one.
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Oh, and interesting read and again shows how little I know about what it is I’m doing… 😁
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Methinks you’re too modest my friend
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