East Cowes - MP Osborne Isle of Wight Photography

Psychogeography & Photography

What is it all about and what does it mean for photographic practice?

I first came across the term psychogeography on my MA from one of our lecturers, Dr Sebastiane Hegarty, who was organising some psychogeographic walks around Southampton. Unfortunately Covid stopped that, but I never stopped thinking about psychogeography. It seemed an interesting term for essentially thinking about the built environment as you wander through it.

So where does this term come from and what the dickens does it have to do with art and photography?

Psychogeography – the beginning

Before we get into the specifics, we need to do some (hugely simplified) background work. This comes in the form of two German philosophers, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Marx and Engels wrote critical theories on politics, economics and society, which was termed Marxism by another German philosopher, Karl Kautsky. Marx and Engels co-developed communist theory, publishing ‘The Communist Manifesto’ in 1848. It’s this socio-political branch of Marxism that people are most familiar with, but there are many branches to Marxism that are less political. The branch we need to look is termed Marxist Aesthetics.

Marxist Aesthetics

As Gordon Graham argues in his Marxist Theory of Art (1997), that critical art theory can be broken down into two distinct and opposing thoughts; Philosophical, which goes back to the minds of Plato and Socrates, and Sociological, which traces its roots back to Marxism.

The aim of the sociological approach is to understand art as an historical phenomenon and a social construction, and it is Marxist theory which sets the terms in which this is to be done (Graham, 1997).

Marxist Aesthetics then is our starting point. As Marxism spread around Europe, artists, writers, philosophers, intellectuals and political thinkers, started to form organisations whose thinking was influenced by Marxism. In the mid 20th Century, one of these organisations was ‘Letterist International’, formed by Guy Debord and Gil J. Wolman in 1952 as a breakaway from the French Avant-Garde group ‘Letterists’ which had formed in the 1940’s. Their ‘official’ address in Paris was a bar which allowed the group freedom to wander the streets of Paris. From this wandering the term dérive was coined, being ‘a mode of experimental behavior linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances (SI Online n.d).

In his Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography, in which psychogeography is first introduced, Guy Debord first sets out his definition of geography:

Geography, for example, deals with the determinant action of general natural forces, such as soil composition or climatic conditions, on the economic structures of a society, and thus on the corresponding conception that such a society can have of the world (Debord, 1955).

It was from this practice of dérive mixing with the impact of geography on society and the environment of the city that bore out psychogeography.

Psychogeography could set for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals (ibid).

Psychogeography then, could be defined by the influence of the environment on the people who interact with it. What is interesting to note is that this definition doesn’t limit itself to purely a built or urban environment. While it was borne out of the streets of Paris through dérive which was specifically linked to urban society, it could be argued that psychogeography is not necessarily environment specific. One could practice psychogeography anywhere, from the centre of a large city to the open wilds of the countryside. However, a longer description as to the reason behind psychogeography appears that puts this on shaky ground:

The sudden change of ambiance in a street within the space of a few meters; the evident division of a city into zones of distinct psychic atmospheres; the path of least resistance which is automatically followed in aimless strolls (and which has no relation to the physical contour of the ground); the appealing or repelling character of certain places — these phenomena all seem to be neglected. In any case they are never envisaged as depending on causes that can be uncovered by careful analysis and turned to account (ibid).

This re-links it back to a practice for a specifically built environment. I would still argue that this could still not necessarily be the case. It’s just that a city would have a much greater influence than a small rural village. While dérive was concerned with a rapid passage through this (urban) environment, psychogeography is the opposite. Slowing down and noticing the nuances, the specific changes in the environment or ‘psychic atmospheres’ that could mean one area goes unnoticed, while another makes people congregate there for whatever reason. In effect, psychogeography is concerned with noticing and identifying these areas, and at the same time using them as points to link others together.

A psychogeographic walk then, should not necessarily be a planned walk, but, as Debord states, is taking ‘the path of least resistance which is automatically followed in aimless strolls’ (ibid). In effect allowing the environment to guide you subconsciously around it.

Practising psychogeography

So how does psychogeography work as part of a wider artistic practice? Well, this depends a lot on your practice. Aimlessly wandering about in search of ‘psychic atmospheres’ can sound a little bit too much in the same realms of astrology and fortune tellers. We already have a good understanding of what psychogeography is, but the last few words – ‘careful analysis and turned to account’ are key.

Making an account of what you see or find, or recording your specific feelings or observations that a place or space gives you. It almost makes psychogeography a sort of science: Observe an environment, analyse it and record your findings. If you can count any preconceived notions as to why an environment could be as it is like a hypothesis to test, then it almost is. This way of looking at things is quite clinical, but it is in essence what psychogeography is. Recording the findings is where artistic practice meets the practice of psychogeography. Whether writing, poetry, drawing or in my case, photography. Psychogeography is a mode to help artistic endeavour.

Psychogeography and photography

My own artistic practice started out a bit confused. As I leaned into landscape photography, I discovered an area of photography that I enjoyed, and that did make some commercial sense. However, landscape photography while enjoyable, always left me a bit cold. While I can appreciate the skill in capturing a particular scene and the resultant aesthetic qualities, I always found that my photos were lacking something. They were showing an ideal, almost hyperreal version of a place. They never explained or dealt with any real issues. They nearly always concerned themselves with the natural environment and shielded away from the social or economics of a place. This is why I found myself continually drawn to more documentary style photography. While documentary photography has its own share of problems, I found they offered a lot more depth. Mixing genres to create, ‘landscape documentary’ or ‘social documentary’ would probably most likely define my own practice better, but there is also argument for not even defining my practice (I’m not even sure ‘photographer’ is truly representative).

Psychogeography allows me to ground and frame my work within this middle ground of social documentary/landscape. This is at least how I see it; others may have their own take on it. Wandering around, letting the landscape – urban or rural – guide me and photographing (making an account, to link in to Debord’s text), what I find interesting either social, aesthetic or incongruous. Both the appealing and repelling character of a place.

Whilst on my MA and being introduced to the practice of psychogeography, I also – as any good Masters’ student should – did some extra reading. W. G. Sebald’s excellent Rings of Saturn is a wonderful read, framed around the author’s long walks round East Anglia. In it he discusses art, history, philosophy and landscape with intertwined stories and accounts. I’ve also read Ian Sinclair’s Lights out for the Territory. A well known practitioner of psychogeography, Sinclair takes us on a series of walks around London. Like Sebald, this has many intertwined stories linking through with the walks. Sinclair also likes to place in phrases from graffiti, posters, or random words that he’s collected on his walks, Grounding his psychogeographical accounts.

Personally, I see psychogeography as a helpful tool that I can fall back on to find inspiration. Like most things however, there are some issues with it. The primary one that I have touched on is that it is seen as a practice that is rooted in an urban environment. I can understand this, but likewise there is no real term for exploring a more rural setting without accidentally ending up taking bad landscape photos. ‘Rural psychogeography’ seems to appear in internet searches but makes the separation between them even more obvious. Falling back on Debord’s original definition makes no specific claim to being an urban or rural practice. To my mind, psychogeography is the exploration of space and place and how this can affect individuals, this can be urban or rural.

In the digital world, the likes of Instagram has made #psychogeography an interesting repository of what this means to others. It is exciting to see how different people see and record their own corner of the world. I do feel that to work at its best, psychogeography of a particular area or space is best seen as a whole body of work rather than individual photos. However, this is more an issue with Instagram as a platform rather than with psychogeography as a practice.

Psychogeography is an interesting concept. It’s become more prominent since the Covid lockdowns, but hopefully this means more people out and about, noticing things. It’s about discovering and recording our sense of place, and there is nothing wrong with that.

Debord, G., 1955, Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography.

Debord, G., 1958, Theory of the Dérive in Situationist International Online (https://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/theory.html)

Graham, G. (1997). The Marxist Theory of Art. The British Journal of Aesthetics, 37(2), 109–117. https://doi.org/10.1093/BJAESTHETICS/37.2.109

W.G. Sebald, on Amazon

Ian Sinclair, Lights out for the Territory on Amazon