One of my photo contacts looked at one of my shots from a recent trip to Montreal and suggested I was becoming a “veritable flâneur.”
In Quebec, the term “flâneur” has negative connotations — like vagrant, vagabond or loiterer. Some stores even post signs saying “defense de flâner,” suggesting they don’t want kids hanging outside the doorway after making their purchases.
In Europe, the term “flâneur” has other connotations. My photo contact referred me to the Wikipedia entry discussing the term “flâneur” as Charles Baudelaire intended it, meaning more of a “gentleman stroller of city streets” or someone who is a detached observer of city life. The article goes on to discuss how street photography has become a modern extension of the 19th century urban observer.
Montreal is a wonderful city in which to be a “flâneur” in Baudelaire’s sense of the term. It has such a vibrant mix of cultures set against exciting architecture, both modern and old.
As for street photography, Montreal presents a unique challenge. Quebec has the most restrictive laws against street photography in North America. Essentially, you can be sued if you publish a photo of someone without their consent and if they are identifiable. The exception, which seems to allow news photography, is if the photo serves the public interest (whatever that means). It’s a vague term that presumably suggests that art and documentation of city life are not in the public interest, whereas news reporting is. Whether or not a court would actually rule that the photo damaged a person is beside the point – few photographers can afford to go to court, so the law instead becomes a tool of blackmail. It’s as though the fundamental freedom of expression guaranteed by 2(b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms has only limited validity in Quebec.
Of course privacy is also a right, and I’ve seen some street photographers who cross the line in that regard. But I tend to think that if a person is doing a public activity in a public place, they should be fair game for a documentary style of photographer.
Being unprepared to challenge Quebec’s law, I reluctantly change my photography style in Montreal. I tend to shoot people in ways that they are more anonymous, either by using motion blur, or photographing from behind. And I take more pictures of buildings and non-human subjects. That’s not to say I’ll always obscure people’s identities if they’re doing a public activity in a public place, but I usually err on the side of caution. And sometimes the results work well.
I spent a few days over the warm, sunny Easter weekend in Montreal. It’s only two hours from Ottawa, but I only seem to get down there a couple times each year. And it’s a world away.
As Canada’s capital, Ottawa has a lot to offer, but compared to Montreal, Ottawa is very bland. If Ottawa is white Wonder Bread, Montreal is pumpernickle. Its streets teem with life and a mixing of languages and cultures. Depending on where you are, you’ll often hear conversations in English, French, Spanish, Italian and Haitian Creole all within a space of minutes. Each neighbourhood has its own ethnic and cultural character.
Montreal is loud, but refined. Its architecture covers many eras from the 17th century to the very modern, but most buildings have a strong sense of design. There’s timeless art in the Métro (subway) and on the streets. Fine dining is everywhere. Montrealers love good food.
I stayed on Sherbrooke near McGill University, the main English-language university, and walked or took the Métro to various points in the city. I tend to go back to favourite areas because they are always different according to the time of year and time of day.
With early summer-like weather, the Latin Quarter near the Université du Québec à Montréal was buzzing with activity in the sidewalk bars and cafés. I took a sequence of tripod photos as night descended on this hive of activity.
On a Saturday morning, the market at Jean Talon on the edge of Little Italy is a popular place, though it’s still relatively quiet at this time of year before all the fresh local produce comes in. The fruit, vegetables and busy shoppers and vendors all add lots of colour.
The narrow cobbled streets of Old Montreal are best visited early on a Sunday morning before they fill up with cars. With only the occasional pedestrian, it’s easy to walk among the centuries-old buildings and imagine you are in another era, or even on another continent. Later in the day, the area is dominated by traffic jams and tourist kitsch.
Invariably there are disappointments as some landmarks are torn up for construction. Last time I was in Montreal, the old fire station at Place d’Youville (now a museum) was covered in scaffolding. It’s now complete and looking good as ever. This time, Place d’Armes in front of Notre-Dame Basilica is completely torn up and closed off with hoarding. But it just means the city is renewing. Unlike many other North American cities, Montreal values its heritage buildings.
I walked from Ile Sainte-Hélène, site of the former Expo ’67, back to downtown Montreal across the immense steel structure of Pont Jacques Cartier, one of a few bridges across the St. Lawrence River. Little remains of Expo, which I visited as a kid, except the geodesic dome of what was once the U.S. pavillion. It was covered in plexiglass, but after that burned in a fire, all that’s left is the metal frame. It’s now the Biosphère, a museum of the environment. Once the site of a massive international fair, the rest of the island is mostly tree-covered hills with views of the downtown.
Walking back over the bridge, the blisters on my feet grew bigger and walking became difficult. But Montreal is such a great walking city, it’s a small price to pay.
The Biosphère, former U.S. Pavillion at Expo ’67.