“We know that under the image which is revealed,
there is another one, more faithful to reality,
and under this other one, there is yet another,
and on it goes.
Right up to the image of absolute reality,
mysterious, that no one will ever see.”
Beat Streuli has become known for his captivating street portraiture, which over the years has documented the anonymous urban citizen in various cities all over the world, from Sydney and Tokyo to Athens and New York. Streuli’s photographs have systematically – unflinchingly, even – focused on ordinary street dwellers, and the contemporary ‘flaneurs’, or ‘heroes of modern life’ going about their daily business. The heterogeneity of the crowd, as written about by Baudelaire among others – as the central component of the cultural dynamism of modernity – and the position of the individual in the crowd, lies at the core of Streuli’s practice. The artist works with a variety of presentation media, from large-format colour photographs, and slides with dissolve technique, to video depending on which aspects of movement, rhythm and time he wishes to highlight. His camera freezes or distills the flow of everyday life, the incessant movement of people in the city, reflecting on daily reality from an entirely anthropocentric perspective. Photographing from an unobtrusive distance, with the use of a telephoto lens, the artist captures his subjects in an unguarded state, bringing them in close proximity to the viewer, accentuating their physical presence in space, and lending them an iconic aura which transcends the ordinariness of the scene portrayed. Yet the scene, what occurs in the photographic frame, always remains entirely plausible, pragmatic, and rooted in reality. Perhaps because most people are caught unawares, and are thus unselfconscious, Streuli manages to present an impressive range of expressive results but also to intimate the feeling of alienation, detachment and – at times – the sense of drifting that pervades a large part of the contemporary urban experience. In writing on public behaviour in the ‘Society of the Spectacle’, Guy Debord remarked that it was a matter of observation, of passive participation, of a certain kind of voyeurism, what Balzac called the “gastronomy of the eye”. It is from this position as a gentle, distanced voyeur with a nevertheless unwavering eye that Streuli presents us with a rich tableaux of human life, immortalising the ordinary man and woman without bias.
The artist’s most recent body of work – featured in the pages of this book – was photographed in Brussels. Swiss-born Streuli is one of a number of well-known artists from abroad who have chosen to make Brussels their home and place of work. These artists do not form a ‘scene’, or ‘in group’ but are part of the fragmented cultural milieu that manifests itself in Brussels, belonging to separate close-knit spheres rather than themselves as being part of a wider artistic ‘community’. They mostly moved to Brussels not because it is a sexy or trendy place to be, but because it is a geographically convenient work place, a city that affords a good standard of living without – still – being extortionately expensive as most other European cities in close proximity are. Because of these facts, most artists are more concerned with making their own work rather than ‘engaging’ with the city, making work that relates to it, or generating any kind of fuss about their presence there. In that sense, Streuli’s Brussels series is unique but also a logical continuation of his preoccupation with photographing people in various cities around the world. However, in this case, it is one of the rare occasions where the artist photographs not from the standpoint of the cultural tourist – if albeit conscious of this position – but from that of the ‘insider’. In that sense, Streuli is himself also part of the multitude of people he portrays, he is one of them. This affords him an awareness, familiarity, and understanding of the place, and allows him to move more comfortably around the spaces where his photographs are taken.
Unlike many other European cities, which are increasingly ‘packaged’ and sold by ‘strategic’ media-driven marketing campaigns, Brussels has been both unwilling and perhaps unable to ‘sell’ itself in this way. It thus has no image, and refuses a singular identity. One thing is for certain, however, Brussels is far from the stereotype of the grey bureaucratic city it is often made out to be. Most people have no idea of its extraordinary cultural and ethnic diversity, as well as the lively street life, café and culinary culture that exist there, outside the world of EU functionaries, and the dull office district of the Schumann and Leopold quarters. Streuli’s Brussels series manages to give an idea of this kaleidoscopic, spirited, truly cosmopolitan city – the Mediterranean capital of Europe, as one sociologist has described it – and a good example of the true post-national city. The state of ‘being in Brussels’ – for foreigners and perhaps locals alike – is hard to define, on the verge, slightly off; one feels in a constant in-between state: never an insider but not an outsider either.
Streuli’s Brussels series was mostly shot in the neighbourhood around his home in the centre of the city, which is largely populated by immigrants and diverse ethnic groups, many of whom he has photographed. While the business of representing the ‘other’ can be a tricky and sensitive issue, Streuli’s approach is refreshingly non judgmental, and unpretentious despite being decidedly voyeuristic. He is interested in all people – regardless of the colour of their skin – and in the surface of things, the ‘skin’ of humanity, not in the politics of representation. The people in his photos are not chosen because they embody a particular social or political reality, but because they are there; there to be looked at, to be observed. In fact, all of his work is as much about what the artist calls ‘the insisting act of seeing’ – in life as in photography – as it is about the people portrayed.
Streuli’s work manifests a characteristically unspectacular way of seeing; the street society he photographs is the society of the ‘unspectacle’, a vision of ordinariness which in its entirety alludes to the quotidian human condition; likewise the images report no unusual or extraordinary occurrences and steer clear of the abject, the exotic, and the odd or bizarre that so much of contemporary photography seems often preoccupied with. But somehow, these routine, ubiquitous acts of life that Streuli portrays acquire a distinct – if commonplace – monumental significance and are revealed as possessing an unexpected kind of beauty, elegance and resonance which his photography draws attention to. It is a sense of commonality amplified or ennobled without any resort to exaggeration. So while there is nothing fashionable, trendy or overtly stylish in these images, all possess their own innate poise and allure, and a sense of beauty which is truly individual, hence not conditioned by the fashion industry and the media.
Streuli approaches all the subjects he photographs in a fundamentally egalitarian way, each image bearing exactly the same weight, sharpness of focus, and consistency as the previous one. There is no differentiation in his approach between the Muslim man or the western teenager, they all possess the same gravitas in the photographic space. In fact, Streuli’s work does not aim to single out ‘the other’, it simply aspires to document what lies around us, with characteristic formal clarity and sharpness of perception. Likewise, the artist does not try to force a specific socio-political reading of his images; although he does make us consider the question of how we view people – all people – around us, he refuses to exoticize or to emphasize difference in the political sense. So, while these images do reflect a multi-cultural reality, for Streuli this is not so much an issue, but rather something that is a de facto normality, and perpetually ‘there’. Similarly, he avoids pathos or sentimentality, or engendering feelings of naïve sympathy towards the people he photographs, and retains a cool distance at all times. As viewers we have to draw our own conclusions as to the possible meanings of these images. If one is indeed to talk about ‘difference’ in this context, it is a discussion that needs to be done on another level: what comes across more strikingly when considering the entirety of his project is that Streuli highlights what we often seem to forget when talking about ‘people’; the fact that the ordinary person in the street is as unique and individual as anyone. In that sense, Streuli’s work can be read as an ode to individuality and difference, but not in the politicized sense of the word.
At the same time, Streuli’s photos give an idea of the increasing heterogeneity of the modern metropolis and the cultural hybridity of the melting pot that is Brussels: a veritable multi-racial, multi-lingual city where one easily finds a hip, modern bar occupied by young people from all over the world, and a Moroccan tea-shop populated only by Arab males, all within a couple of metres of each other. In a city where approximately more than one third of the population is of foreign origin, these different communities seem to co-exist without the flammable tension that is found, say, in the Parisian banlieues. Culturally, immigrants and their descendants have both adapted to the local culture and enriched it. Without wanting in any way to suggest that there are no social problems springing from racial or ethnic issues, the idea of the ‘global village’ somehow seems to ‘work’ in Brussels better than in other cities where racial tensions are more amplified and ethnic communities suffer to large degrees from disenchantment and frustration. In Brussels there is a unique situation where people of diverse ethnic backgrounds and religions live very close to each other – physically – and intermingle on a daily basis; there are no ghettoes, a high degree of tolerance, and a sense that this heterogeneity is a given fact, what constitutes the Brussels experience.
Though Streuli’s work is so rich in visual information, so pictorially descriptive – in fact, much of it’s essence lies in the physical specifics of clothes, fabrics, and accessories, in addition to the physical and spatial relationships that manifest themselves in the urban environment – it paradoxically defies straightforward explanation. It is impossible to ‘consume’ these images in one go, to immediately ‘interpret’ them; their very strength lies in the fact that they remain opaque and open-ended. As Streuli does not set up his scenes, and is in no position to control them, whatever ‘meaning’ resides in his work thus not programmatic but rather contingent. As viewers we are witness to a body of images that draw attention more to themselves than to their maker, though no author, of course, can be entirely transparent. These are by no means psychological portraits which attempt to capture the subject’s soul nor do the images intend to tell a story or document a social thesis; on the contrary, their meaning remains immanent, reinforcing, at the same time, the truism that it is impossible to know people at face value. Nevertheless, this writer would like to draw some entirely subjective conclusions after having looked at Streuli’ work closely. Though the people in it do not talk, they have a lot to say. What exactly? That the reality surrounding us has become more fractured and complex; that people appear to be more alienated from each other as well as from the space that surrounds them; that we are all looking around us less perceptively; that even while we look we may not see; that our gaze has become either self-conscious or introverted, and that we are reluctant to direct it for fear of causing offence; that contemporary life in the public arena has become less engaged and more autistic; that we all conduct ourselves less as part of a social whole and more as individual ‘monads’, cut off from what happens around us. Already at the beginning of the twentieth century, the German sociologist Georg Simmel talked about the relationship of ‘the metropolis and mental life’, formulated the idea of the stranger as a form of sociality and claimed that the characteristic experience of the modern city is living among strangers who remain strangers. According to Simmel, the city conspires to erase difference by assaulting the individual with an overwhelming and never-ending stream of visual stimuli, thus causing distance, reserve and indifference. At the same time Simmel also spoke of the freedom strangeness and alterity, as social conditions, also afford the city dweller. Streuli’s work is in many ways a reflection of these ideas, which are equally relevant today. But his work can also be seen as being symptomatic of the evolution of modern life but also of the social consequences of globalisation and of the encounters – chance or not – that occur as a result. Simultaneously his photographs allude to the increasing homogenisation – the physical characteristics of urban space, regardless of location, are more or less interchangeable in Streuli’s photos – and the uniformity of contemporary urban experience.
One can also relate Streuli’s work to that of sociologist and urban theorist Richard Sennett and his notions of urbanity as defined by difference, diversity, density, strangers, complexity, hybridity, all of which are inferred in Streuli’s practice. Among other things, Sennett maintains that urbanity begins as bodily experience, by seeing the other and being in physical proximity to it. Urbanity has therefore to be seen as an environment of the senses, as it is something people physically experience directly. It relates to bodily movement, how people navigate space and ‘manoeuvre’ in relation to each other, and how they employ body language and engage in visual contact. Sennett has claimed that in the space of diversity, people become more of one another. Perhaps that is in a sense true but what is probably more true is his idea that difference also leads to indifference. In these zones of potential socialization, where interaction might occur, there is instead a sense of disinterest.
Though Streuli comes from a fine art background, his work fits into the long tradition of that distinct art form called street photography and can be related to photographers as diverse as Walker Evans, Helen Levitt, Lewis Hine, Gary Winogrand, Eugene Atget, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Andre Kertesz, Lee Friedlander. Streuli’s work is much in line with the realist conventions of street photography, and with its most defining characteristics: freezing the fluidity of the moment, the significant gesture that is part of the human stream as it rushes by and seizing the uniqueness of that specific split second, while at the same time operating in unobtrusive even invisible manner. This kind of photography does not rely on pre-visualization; quite the opposite: the skill is in being able to anticipate action, interaction and to capture those meaningful, fugitive instants. It happens, like much photography of this kind, spontaneously. “To photograph is to hold one’s breath”, Cartier-Bresson once said; Streuli’s each and every photograph are visual manifestations of this ‘single breath’, so concentrated and evanescent is the gesture captured that one senses it would have disappeared or changed a split second later. The photographic result of that ‘single breath’ is what photographer/writer Joel Meyerowitz has called the ‘extension of the life of that millisecond’.
Streuli’s photographs – with their insistent look at the myriad individuals passing through the city and indeed through life itself – and their intense flesh and blood quality ultimately remind this writer of the transience and finiteness of human life and of our mutual, universal certainty, the only real democracy: that of death. Roland Barthes famously associated photography with death, seeing death as being implicit in each photograph, since it takes one back to the past, to a time lost, and a scene which cannot be reclaimed except only through the memory of the photograph. He spoke about photography as the medium within which we experience death or are perpetually reminded of it, about its capacity to stop or frame a moment in time, thus illustrating the ‘death’ of a particular event. It is not an obvious correlation to make, but the human flow illustrated in Streuli’s work, the intense sense of corporality, and the awareness of the evanescent moment very much recall Barthes musings on the relationship between mortality and photography, at least to my mind.
Streuli’s work, with its insistent interest in and focus on the human face, also brings to the fore notions of physiognomy, the study of a person’s facial characteristics. The interest in physiognomy goes back to Ancient Greece, where philosophers like Aristotle and scientists like Pythagoras believed it possible to infer character from facial features. In the modern era, the principal promoter of the idea of physiognomy was the Swiss pastor Johann Kaspar Lavater. Nowadays the traditional definition of physiognomy has been discredited as pseudoscience or charlatanry and it is commonly accepted that it is impossible to tell a person’s character or personality through the examination of facial features. Nevertheless, the face still is able to say a considerable amount about a person’s emotion, predisposition and mood. Schopenhauer in his essay ‘Physiognomy’ spoke of the human face as a ‘hieroglyph’ a ‘compendium’ of all a human will ever say, and about how all our thoughts and desires have set their mark upon our faces. He also believed that the face can be ‘deciphered’, a notion which today holds no weight. If we apply the contemporary meaning of physiognomy to Streuli’s pictures – one which intimates countenance, ‘look’, and expression – we can still infer a good deal of a person’s temperament, even if we are not able to ‘know’ them. In that sense, Streuli’s work relates more to film critic and writer Béla Balázs’ idea of ‘microphysiognomy’. In writing about how moving pictures reinstated the importance of the language the body and the expressions of the human face, which he believed had been suppressed by the culture of books and the written word. “Facial expression is the most subjective manifestation of man, more subjective than speech,” Balázs wrote in Theory of the Film. “The language of the face cannot be suppressed or controlled.” So, while there is no doubt that the face is a repository or storehouse, it is also true that it holds back just as much as it tells, functioning, as anthropologist Michael Taussig has said, as both mirror and mask. Streuli’s portraits can be seen to perfectly express Taussig’s idea of the ‘doubleness’ of the face, in that the subjects portrayed equally conceal as they reveal.
Most of the people in Streuli’s work are portrayed alone, with their thoughts and concerns. On occasion they are portrayed in small groups. Their facial and bodily expressions are extremely varied and telling because they are not posing for the camera. Streuli has an eye for telling gestures and expressions and subtle body language. He is not interested in the affronted stare, the dramatic, the over-stated or the obvious, but rather in the fleeting glance, the nuanced moment, the poignant gesture. What is also remarkable in practically all of the photographs is the intensity of expression on people’s faces. They look worried, thoughtful, anxious, happy, angry, suspicious, curious, satisfied, sad, guilty, mocking, arrogant, sympathetic, shy, serious, bewildered, lost, bored, caring, investigative, distrustful, probing, scared, insecure, lonesome, self confident, disgusted, argumentative, coarse, unstable, perfectly normal, inquisitive, puzzled, introverted, sleepy, alert, stunned, nervous, proud, amused, distrustful. When shown alone, most people seem lost in their thoughts and concerns, it is the face that is the focal point; the background is blurred due to the telephoto lens and the people seem sharply etched against this out-of-focus world. When depicted in groups, bodily language becomes more pronounced and there is more interaction, though the nature of this interaction is sometimes ambiguous or inconclusive. Nevertheless it would be a mistake to view these portraits as psychological documents. The subjects ultimately remain impenetrable, detached, and ‘atomized’ reminding us that “we are each our own little bundle of secrets”, to borrow a phrase by art critic Michael Kimmelman.
Streuli’s photographs function as contemporary portraits of what would normally be called the ‘masses’; I hesitate to use this word, however, because all of the people in his photographs are so individual, so memorable as individuals, that it seems totally inappropriate to use this kind of terminology. In many ways, the photographs are quite close to painting: from the classical composition, the frontal focus, the emphasis on surface and texture. As unmistakeably contemporary as these portraits are, they at the same time recall the Fayoum portraits of the Coptic Christians in Ancient Egypt – with their striking but impenetrable semblance – and Tintoretto, Titian, Frans Hals, Gainsborough. This is a kind of photography that comes as close to painting as any, indeed maybe its counterparts are better sought in the history of portrait painting than in photography itself, street photography aside. At the same time, there is also a characteristically cinematic quality to Streuli’s work: the large format prints he often prefers render the subjects larger than life, as on the cinema screen. Likewise the subjects can be seen as accidental actors. Individually, many photographs are akin to still pictures taken from cinema or can be seen as film stills of everyday life. In a way, they can collectively be seen to hint at the phenomenon of the ‘cinematization’ of modern life, or the tendency to look at the world in the manner of depiction of cinema. Streuli’s work possesses characteristics from cinema’s iconic power, as well as many of the formal qualities of painting, but it is also purely traditionally photographic, in the sense that it propagates the idea of intervention – free veracity. In that sense, Streuli’s work belongs to a modernist tradition when photography was seen as a tool for representation, when one which believed in the candid gaze, the camera’s capacity to truthfully record reality, and there was implicit trust in the indexical function of the image. Post-modernist discourse on photography may have challenged the veracity of the photographic image, highlighted the camera’s capacity to lie, and pinpointed the constructedness of photography for political or ideological reasons, but it has not managed to negate the legitimacy of practices like Beat Streuli’s and other artists who insist on a more ‘straight’ and spontaneous approach to photography.
Streuli has pursued his singular vision and specific theme with remarkable consistency, steadfastness and focus, something I have come to increasingly appreciate with artists. During a time when many artists seem preoccupied with the pursuit of the new and the different, with renewing their language and method of working to prove ‘development’, he literally ‘sticks to his guns’ and refuses to dilute or change his vision, approach and field of focus. This is not an easy position to adhere to nowadays, when the demands of market and audience change with every passing fashion. Artistically, Streuli manages to apply his own personal vision to the theme he concerns himself with, without being disruptive or judgmental, capturing the incessant motion and human variety that exists on the street and crystallizing it in memorable works of visual force. By establishing a certain order and unity in the chaos that is urban life, he makes us conscious of what Richard Sennett has called ‘the equilibrium of disorder’. He highlights the hidden beauty in places where beauty is not normally sought and manages to create an unaffected and convincing body of work which resonates in our minds.