Walking City: A Flâneur's Haven or a Collector's Câche?

Virginia Heckert

Had I been born in Manhattan, I think I, too, would feel particularly inspired to photograph "my" city. I also think that I, too, would want to photograph it in a way that suggests what is unique about the city without resorting to the usual highlights from tourist guides. Mikael Levin, who was born in New York, has his studio in an area of Manhattan that is just north of Chelsea and south of Hell's Kitchen. It is an area that in general can be described as Midtown, but is actually to the southwest of Midtown proper, and thus one that many visitors to Manhattan will not see, or will choose to pass through as quickly as possible on their way to the Empire State Building, the Central Post Office, Penn Station, or Port Authority. But it is also an area on which many inhabitants of the city depend for their daily livelihood. It consists of several pockets of concentrated commercial activity, most notably the flower market and the garment district, as well the multitude of noisy streets and busy intersections through which one crosses the city from north to south, east to west, and back again. Although there are any number of ways to traverse Manhattan -- subway, bus, car, bicycle -- it is notable that Levin chooses to photograph his city on foot. Hence the name Walking City that he has ascribed to the body of work comprised of several series that have occupied him for the past five years or so. The photographs in these series create an intimate portrait of the city, not in the loving details they reveal, but in the depth of their maker's familiarity with specific details.

Levin cites the figure of the flâneur as his inspiration for this work. A page of his website describes Walking City as

... an ongoing series of photographs which I take in the vicinity of my studio in midtown New York. Several groups of photographs, such as those of the hands of people gesturing in the street, arrangements of plants in the flower market, the space that constitutes a street corner, homeless men sleeping in the street, shop windows, and snow patches on the sidewalks, are woven together to evoke the modernist gaze of the "flâneur", roaming the streets, seeking refuge in the crowd. As in Walter Benjamin's writings, here the city is both a landscape and a room, where the outward experience of the urban is ultimately an inward experience of self-reflection. (1)

I've never actually watched Levin take photographs, but I have observed him strolling through his neighborhood, and he demonstrates a simultaneous immersion in and removal from his environment, a quality that is reflected in his photographs. His reference to the flâneur suggests not only the writings of Walter Benjamin, who focused on the inherent contradictions within this figure (2), but also the writings of Charles Baudelaire, which define the flâneur as a unique phenomenon of nineteenth-century Paris. It is not coincidental that Levin, whose mother is French, spent summers as a child in Paris and chose to live there for five years following the completion of his education at Williams College and Hamilton College in Massachusetts, before finally settling in Manhattan in 1980. Nor is it coincidental that his representation of the city does not strive for comprehensiveness, but, rather, that it is distinctly selective. It is on this notion of the flâneur, and on several contradictions or dichotomies inherent to this figure and his place in modern society that I wish to focus in the discussion to follow.

During the past decade, Levin has often selected projects that embrace the complications or anomalies of a specific location. In The Border Project (1993-1994), his photographs of towns along the frontier connecting France with Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg captured the unique characteristics of each town, while also suggesting the changing political significance and symbolic value of a new European Community. In War Story (Suche) (1995-1996), by retracing his father's journey as a correspondent in Europe during and immediately following World War II, Levin addressed issues of landscape and memory, of history and narrative, and through this confrontation of the various dimensions of his father's past, succeeded in creating a remembrance of his own. In its combination of photographs of Eastern European Jews who had settled in Berlin with photographs of places in the city selected by each subject as particularly meaningful, The Burden of Identity (1998) presents a document of a city which addresses the inner conflicts of both individual inhabitants and of its historical identity. In its juxtaposition of the four cities of Katrinenholm (1989-1997), Thessaloniki (1996), Cambrai (1997), and Erfurt (1998), Common Places indicates how cultural identity is manifested in fairly ordinary small to mid-sized urban spaces. Similarly, Walking City (1995-2000) describes the contradictions of the simultaneously public and private nature of the metropolis, of a photographer's personal view in a public space, and of a native New Yorker's desire to speak with an outsider's voice.

Levin's observations about the ordinary made in conjunction with Common Places apply equally well to Walking City, a project on which he worked concurrently:

When you know a place well you don't see it as ordinary, you see [in] it all the nuances that make it special. But this was not a documentary project; I wasn't trying to make a definitive portrait of each city. I guess you could say that I was first using the places to bring out those qualities, which today we consider to be ordinary. ... Ordinary places do not single themselves out. Ordinariness is closely linked with familiarity: when we are familiar with a place, we don't really "see" it ... for the photographer to retain the quality of ordinariness, the place needs to appear transient or meaningless, as though "invented" by the act of photographing ... (3)

These qualities of ordinariness, transience and meaninglessness were intrinsic to Charles Baudelaire's discussion of the painter of modern life, who used the terms the transitory, the contingent, the trivial. (4) If we substitute the figure of the painter with that of the photographer (specifically Levin), then the choice to photograph plants in the flower market, pushcarts in the garment district, the display windows of discount shops, homeless men sleeping in the street, hand gestures of people temporarily stopped at street corners, and snow drifts melting after a winter storm clearly reflects the transience of modern life, both literally and on a more symbolic level -- literally because some of the smaller businesses that were once typical of midtown are beginning to die out, steadily being replaced by larger chain concerns.

That several of the subjects in Levin's Walking City represent the "refuse" of everyday life (or of history, to push the point) additionally suggests the sensibility of collector. As defined by Benjamin, the figure of the collector may in fact be better suited to describe not only Levin's choice of subject matter, but also his mode of presentation for this exhibition. Wresting individual details from their original urban context, Levin recombines these details on the walls of the exhibition and in the pages of this publication as a montage. Examples from each series are presented as separate objects, printed in differing sizes, and in some cases on different papers, yet all are combined into a seamless whole, that of the Walking City. Each photograph represents a moment that is at once transitory and fleeting (and hence "modern" by Baudelaire's definition) and furthermore marks the end of its usefulness, particularly in the case of the commercial businesses. Although the photographs "document" each of the businesses depicted, Levin cannot be thought of as a social documentarist, but as a subjective observer whose selective survey of the details that comprise his city equate the act of photographing with that of collecting. Both acts constitute a form of remembrance that elevates the objects singled out to entries in a larger encyclopedia of the age.

Levin as both a flâneur and the collector -- are these contradictory figures? According to Benjamin, the flâneur satisfies optical impulses, while the collector satisfies tactile impulses. The attention to different senses suggests that the two figures represent entirely different sensibilities; however, isn't it possible that these two sensibilities are ideally merged in the figure of the photographer? The flâneur's wanderings through the labyrinthian arcades of the city, his seeking out of the crowds and his fascination with the minutest changes in fashion can become so intensified as to lead to idleness. It is significant that Levin's activities as flâneur-collector-photographer have not lead him to Fifth Avenue in Midtown, to Madison Avenue on the Upper East Side, or to West Broadway in Soho as twentieth-century Manhattan's counterpart to Parisian arcades of the nineteenth century, but instead to the almost nether regions of an almost non-descript area of the city that satisfies the remaining senses of sound, smell, and even taste. Although the discreteness of the individual districts in which the flower market, the garment district, and the shop windows are located might be considered the equivalent of a single Passage-like arcade, each exists within the fabric of the larger city, teeming not only with crowds, but with automobiles, buses, restaurants, street vendors, etc. If mass consumption threatened the flâneur of nineteenth-century Paris, then the photographer who documents the dying forms of simpler forms of industry becomes a hero who preserves an important aspect of modernity as history.

Like the concepts of modernity and the flâneur, Territories also incorporates dialectical impulses in its motivation. First as a weekly seminar and now as an exhibition documented in the final issue of a journal, the goal of this project has been summarized by Jean-Francois Chevrier as an interrogation of "the relations and the disparities between art and information in contemporary society." (5) Within the space designated for the presentation of Walking City, Levin has decided to contrast his montage-like installation of photographs of the urban environment with those of landscapes. Concurrent with his excerpting and preserving individual details of Manhattan in photographs, Levin has steadily been photographing a variety of examples of the phenomenon of the "marked landscape," or a landscape that represents one of several influences from the civilized world, including agriculture (La Bassée in France), culture (The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation in Connecticut), urbanity (Eib's Pond Park, in Staten Island, New York), archaeology (Châteaubleau just outside of Paris), and war (Ohrduf, in Germany). For the exhibition, the photographs of landscapes are not presented as a montage of interconnected elements hung on the walls, but in simply bound albums laid on a shelf at eye level on the backside of the wall displaying Walking City. Both Levin's decision to position landscape on the periphery of the city and his decision to present each of the landscape series in a separate album that is best leafed through individually suggest the intimacy of one's experience in nature. Rather than being motivated by the desire to contrast urban experience with nature, Levin's goal seems to have been to create a whole comprised of two halves. The city-dweller finds respite in nature.

It is the acceptance of the pairings of transience and permanence, familiarity and distance, opticality and tactility, documentation and preservation, city and nature not as dichotomies that oppose one another but as dualities that complement one another that distinguish Mikael Levin's work as a photographer.


(1) http://www.mikaellevin.com/walking_city.htm, 6/16/01. The individual series that make up Walking City are the flower market, push carts, street corners, hands, homeless men, shop windows, snow patches.
(2) Walter Benjamin, "The Flâneur," in The Arcades Project, trans. by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, prepared on the basis of the German volume edited by Rolf Tiedemann (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), pp. 416-455.
(3) Mikael Levin, "Common Places," in Le Visiteur: Ville, Territorie, Paysage, Architechture, no. 6 (Fall 2000), pp. 75-76.
(4) Charles Baudelaire, "The Painter of Modern Life," in Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, trans. and ed. by J. Mayne (London, 1964), pp. 1-40; these were in opposition to the eternal and the immutable.
(5) Jean-Francois Chevrier with Sandra Alvarez de Toledo, press release for Territories, dated April 26, 2001.