One of the signature works in the acclaimed recent exhibition Strangers: The ICP Triennial, at the Institute of Contemporary Photography in New York, was not in the museum, but instead on it. Beat Streuli’s large-scale, photographic transparencies in the windows featured individuals recorded unawares on the streets of some of the world’s biggest and most renowned cities. In each case, the person loomed from a surrounding crowd, and he or she was captured in a moment of routine motion, like striding down a sidewalk or crossing a street. Expressions were important, as was posture, and both suggested an unusual combination of public confidence and private doubts, contemplation, bewilderment, and longing. While these images suggested seductive advertisements (something many of Streuli’s works likewise do) they were simultaneously spare and voluptuous, and they had an exquisite beauty, which quite frankly seemed more painterly than photographic – a Renaissance absorption with physique, musculature, and posture; with fabrics and clothing; with complex expressions; with sunlight and shadow; and especially with the relations between foreground and background. Also like many of Streuli’s works, these images had an undercurrent of desire shading into an eroticism that wasn’t overt but was still palpably there: the “body electric”, as Walt Whitman once memorably put it, but now decked out in street fashions, brand names, and urban accessories. Still, the more one spent time with these works, the more one also recognized all that nagging half-loneliness, partial sadness, and undefined wariness, which in a post-9/11 world seems awfully close to the bone (and similar works by Streuli, made during the 1990’s, now seem quite prophetic.) Ultimately, Streuli’s outsized images amounted to an extraordinary conflation of public and private life; mass culture and beleaguered individuality; surging activity and solitude, alienation, or vulnerability.
The setting for this series was perfect: 43rd Street between 6th Avenue and Broadway, at the edge of Times Square, in one of the most commercial, advertisement-laden, heavily trafficked spots in New York. Glancing up at the museum’s façade, probably a great many people were fooled into thinking that Streuli’s photographs were indeed part of an advertising campaign hawking this or that product, or this or that lifestyle. Just down the street, one could also find a similar photographic installationæin the windows of a Federal Express office, where one saw snappy trucks and can-do deliverymen ready to speed packages anywhere in the world. Probably a great many people, as well, walking down 43rd Street to the Broadway shows and the neon restaurants of Times Square, looked exactly like those depicted in Streuli’s images, wearing the same designer clothing, the same hip hop sweatshirts, listening to the same Walkmans and iPods, talking on the same cell phones, maintaining the same casual yet purposeful pace, wearing the same kind of baseball caps and sunglasses. Still, the truly startling thing – and a signature of Streuli’s work through the years – is how each of the public people in the photographs, while surrounded and buoyed by the rhythms of the city, also seemed solitary, lost in thought, and at times inexorably lonely.
Beat Streuli is one of the most compelling contemporary revitalizers of a kind of street photography that has a long lineage. Moreover, while Streuli’s peculiar blend of photography, film, advertisements, and information flow on the internet is unmistakably of this time, he’s also related to an idea and orientation at the very root of Modernism, namely Charles Baudelaire’s notion of the flâneur. In his famous essay “The Painter of Modern Life”, here’s what Baudelaire had to say about the flâneur: “The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world.” Baudelaire goes on to announce that this flâneur is “an ‘I’ with an insatiable appetite for the ‘non-I’, and suggests what he’s seeking, “He is looking for that quality which you must allow me to call ‘modernity’, “which is defined like this, “By modernity’ I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable.” 1
There very much remains something of Baudelaire’s flâneur in Beat Streuli, who likewise heads to the street and the crowd, whose photographs are filled with ‘ephemeral’ and ‘fugitive’ moments, who is both a passionate and a patient spectator, and for whom modernity means an increasingly standardized and globalized urban world influenced and molded by film, television, advertisements, fashion, and lifestyle statements. Surreptitiously using a camera fitted with a telephoto lens, Streuli takes seemingly banal photographs of individuals in crowds, oftentimes, but not exclusively, savvy and appealing young adults in New York, London, Tokyo, Sydney or anywhere else his travels take him. One sees these figures as they’re getting from here to there on their presumably daily routines: walking down the sidewalk, momentarily sitting on a park bench, looking at (or away from) someone else, listening through headphones. Typically, the person photographed projects an aura of vitality and energy, but it’s also disconcerting to find the same look, the same fashion, even the same body language in far-flung locales, suggesting a contemporary ‘sameness’ spreading across national and cultural borders, a globalized homogeneity taking its cues from American pop culture trends. Highlighted in the crowd by Streuli, each of these individuals appears as a momentary ‘star’, even as a model on a runway (although the runway is the actual street, and not a constructed device) yet Streuli isn’t interested in startling, meaningful poses, but instead in activities so routine and generic that one normally wouldn’t give them a second thought.
Beat Streuli’s methodology is instinctual and improvisational: he photographs people and things that quickly catch his eye, for whatever peculiar reasons. He also has an uncanny ability to catch his public subjects – who are unaware they’re being photographed – in remarkably private, idiosyncratic moments, which can sometimes take on large social implications. A businessman in New York wears a gray suit coat that’s oddly askew, one of his shoulders is slightly higher than the other, his head tilts at an almost uncomfortable angle, and his tie also seems a little off kilter. His whole outfit and bearing should communicate wealth and authority, but worry and disarray seem to be infiltrating his power persona. This image, from 2000, also anticipates the economic troubles and corporate scandals that have wracked America during the last several years. Two ultra-trendy young women in Bangkok walk along while simultaneously rummaging through their handbags. They’re distracted by their possessions, and you get the uncomfortable feeling that their lives may indeed consist entirely of fashion and possessions. In Sydney, a young white guy with a bag slung over his shoulder passes a young Asian guy with a similar bag slung over his shoulder, and they’re both wearing what appear to be identical pants. Their clothes announce they’re from the same social milieu, but they don’t look at each other, and this lack of acknowledgment evokes the complexities of contemporary Australia, where an influx of Asian immigrants abuts a centrally European heritage. In Tokyo, a young woman wearing a blue scarf gazes intently to the left. She seems intelligent, intense, hopeful, and also a bit skeptical, but you have no idea if she is looking at something essential, or looking at nothing in particular, as she considers something deep in her mind.
Streuli’s images are typically suggestive and ambiguous, and precisely because they so often depict people in transition, they effectively conjure an entire roiling era marked by restlessness, wandering, speed, and displacement. This is something that Streuli’s various techniques only augment. Presented next to each other on the wall in the manner of filmstrips, one photograph always leads to the next, and then the next. Just as you’re absorbing one image, your eyes always move to another, so that everything seems at once vivid and fleeting. In Streuli’s slide projections or slow motion video projections, each person always fades to the next, and there’s something downright haunting about this cycle of presence and absence, which evokes inevitable loss (lost friends, missed chances, connections that didn’t pan out) but also, more implicitly, mortality. Throughout Streuli’s work, each image in a series taken in a particular city is meant to be relational: each refers to the others like parts of a code; each is part of a continuum. One is drawn to this language of shifting nuances, gestures, glances, and gaits, which seems to hold such potential meaning, yet which also proves maddeningly elusive, and indeed one is drawn to all these strangers who seem at once available and remote. Here’s another way of putting things: the seemingly cool and neutral Streuli, who doesn’t take sides in his photographs and videos, who doesn’t communicate statements, who observes his subjects from the safe distance of a telephoto lens, who’s in headlong flight from anything smacking of gushy emotionalism, and who’s an exacting formalist when it comes to compositional matters, is actually making a profoundly human body of work that seems motivated by empathy for, and an inexhaustible curiosity about, a broad spectrum of other people, other psyches, other lives.
Certain shifts in an artist’s career can be decisive, and they need not constitute a radical break with a previous aesthetic. Beat Streuli’s new exhibition in Santiago de Compostela is one of those times. While Streuli is primarily known for his photographs taken in large cities, what he’s addressed more rarely are comparatively small cities or towns, with their specific histories, and their local citizenry, and that’s precisely what he does now, in Santiago de Compostela. His technique is largely the same. Streuli hung out in the city, observed the motion and nuances of street life, and took photographs of people using his signature telephoto lens, as well as videos, reserving for himself his usual subjectivity: whoever caught his eye and lodged in his mind was recorded, and the subsequent editing process was rigorous. Actually, the project is related to another genre in photography, namely travel photography, when a photographer goes to a foreign place to record its singular wonders and local flavor, and it is this genre that Streuli completely subverts. He didn’t set out to photograph the city proper, which is already among the most photographed cities in Spain. He didn’t photograph the famous cathedral, La Plaza del Obradoiro, the Plaza de las Platerias, the 11th century Monastery of San Pelayo de Antealtares, or the Rajoy Palace. He didn’t directly photograph evidence of history, in what is a very historical place. He didn’t photograph the shops, restaurants, and bars of La Zona Vieja, or the 500 hundred-year-old university. While parts of this famous city appear, it’s always as traces of architecture in the background, oftentimes rather blurry traces. Instead, Streuli photographed people, in the kind of banal situations that he typically favors: normal people waiting at an intersection, walking down a road, clutching bags, pushing baby strollers, going shopping, or simply waiting. And in Streuli’s hands these ‘boring’ vignettes become both visually and psychologically enthralling.
A pensive middle-aged woman in a pink blouse walks holding a plastic bag. Half of her face is in strong sunlight; the other half is shrouded in darkness, and you notice the peculiar way that her right hand is positioned, almost as if it were hovering near her waist, not really knowing whether to go up or down. In another photo, five females fill the frame, ranging in age from 40ish to 10ish. You guess (but don’t know) that the four figures facing the camera are from the same family, and if so, what’s striking is how girlishness, a teenager’s embrace of awakening sexuality, and an observant mother’s corresponding nervosity occur side by side. Moreover, this contemporary human situation, replete with the colorful clothing that each person wears, seems to be issuing from the immense pillars (and presumably even more immense historical building) in the background. Meanwhile a middle-aged man with a furrowed brow and silvery hair has just a few parts of himself illuminated by sunlight, while the rest (and indeed the rest of the frame) is immersed in dark, almost velvety shadow. Almost always, Streuli’s frontal shots of people on the street remain enigmatic, as people are simultaneously revealed and concealed. If Streuli’s work communicates a lavish attention to the details of who we are, how we present ourselves, and how we behave in urban environments, it equally communicate the limits of interpersonal knowledge. The viewer is always left guessing who these others are, what their expressions communicate,
The remains of the Apostle St. James are said to be buried in a sepulcher in Santiago de Compostela’s main cathedral, which immediately differentiates this city from all the others Beat Streuli has photographed through the years. Since the Middle Ages, Santiago de Compostela has been a prime site in Christendom, as well as a center for pilgrimage, and it’s still like that today, of course in addition to all of its other dynamics. Travel to, and travel in, Santiago de Compostela, in other words, is intrinsic to its history. Beat Streuli’s video projections here involve nothing more than people waiting at an intersection for the light to change, in order to resume their personal journeys. This is a standard intersection, with nothing special about it, but Streuli’s choice of an intersection resonates: an intersection between the city’s exalted past and its present, between ardent religious pilgrims and people merely going about their business, between this Galician capital and the world at large, between the diverse people of the city themselves. You see people standing, looking this way and that, in slow motion. They’re right there in full view, but then you partially see them through the windows of a passing car, and sometimes they’re blotted out entirely by a passing bus or a truck, only to reappear again. You pay almost hypnotic attention to details, to a stoic elderly woman with big sunglasses, for example, who keeps rhythmically looking to the left, then the right. You begin, almost automatically, to imagine a possible story for her, but then her image fades to an elderly man with white hair and open collar, then a younger woman who keeps tossing her hair a bit flamboyantly, then a thoughtful young man with a slight frown, and on and on. The slow motion pageantry of traffic, of people shifting their weight from foot to foot, of people turning their heads and lowering and raising their eyes, and of faces that subtly change according to fleeting thoughts and emotions is altogether riveting. Here in Santiago de Compostela, which is famous for its pilgrimages, Beat Streuli has devised a new kind of processional: a gorgeous processional of the everyday, a processional not of monuments and churches but street corners and sidewalks, a richly human (and remarkably diverse) processional involving an intricate, ever-shifting mix of outer appearances and inner lives.
1 Baudelaire, Charles, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays (translated and edited by Jonathan Mayne), Phaidon, 1964, pp. 9-12.