Into a world in disarray, with its propensity to wide-scale war increasing daily, come Beat Streuli’s photographs of people on the streets of New York City, taken over the last few years, people wandering aimlessly or pressing ahead, all seemingly oblivious to the disaster that surrounds them. Of course, as individuals they are not at all oblivious. They are the intelligent, normal people who make up the populace of any urban center, exhibiting the variety of cultural background and dress that defines their particular moment in time. Nor are the pictures entirely oblivious. We have been trained to take artists at their image, and Streuli’s images make use of an impassioned play of light and darkness that seems capable of taking in the diversity of lifes moments.
The urban critic Lewis Mumford believed that the American promenade evolved from the quasi-pastoral embrace of the park combined with the razzle-dazzle glamour of the avenue. This particularly American version, although it has commonality with the Mediterranean, differs in the commercial nature of its effects. Mumford traced the impact of New York’s archetypal Broadway on the myriad mini-replicas in cities and towns across the country: ‘Up and down these secondhand Broadways, from one in the afternoon until past ten at night, drifts a more or less aimless mass of human beings, bent upon extracting such joy as is possible from the sights in the windows, the contacts with other human beings, the occasional or systematic flirtations, and the risks and adventures of purchase.’1 This pattern exists in New York until today, with perhaps the change that people today incorporate leisure into their daily activities, so that the two become, minute to minute, almost indistinguishable.
Some photographers’ work, evolving out of a daily practice — whether through observation or contrivance — takes its place at the head of the ageless line of graphic depiction, stretching beyond history into murky distances. Others, on the contrary, find their shots based only on recent, and what is worse, commercial productions.
It is informative to note the preponderance throughout history of imagery depicting the human form. This is not surprising, given the human propensity to self-obsession, or at least self-concern. Some artists in the 20th century based their avowed rejection of this obsession (a rejection they expressed through a commitment to nonrepresentational imagery) on a program for social change, pointing out that portraiture had long been used as a propaganda tool for the powerful. Not only portraiture, it could be argued, but all art made for patrons was and is an expression of dominant belief systems.
Representational painting often took on topics of social change, while nonrepresentational art was often cultivated by an intellectual elite. Photography could be fatally weighed down by a desire to contribute to reform. In rare cases, such as that of Lewis Hine, aesthetic brilliance and social program went hand in hand. The end results then are works of art that penetrate existence, while retaining mystery. The defining factor would seem to be the photographer’s humanity, his ability to see his fellow human being without prejudgment, lucidly observing what is on the surface, molding that, making slight use of previous patterns of seeing.
This is what Beat Streuli achieves in his remarkable series of New York photographs. His mastery of photographic art allows him to balance formal and perceptual concerns. He underlines his dedication to the formal in the photographs in which industrial images of motor vehicles predominate. On a surface of idealized patterns born of concern for efficiency, human prevarication and the traces of time’s vagaries are allowed to intrude.
Formal concerns, adroitly addressed in all his photographs, provide only the merest backdrop for Streuli’s work. In front, audaciously stressed in the foreground, are Streuli’s depictions of his fellow human beings. One says “fellow” as, wherever he chooses to shoot (he has photographed people in Sydney, Birmingham, and Bangkok, to name a few), Streuli engages in empathetic response to his subjects. He achieves this, paradoxically, as a voyeur, using a telephoto lens, sometimes ensconced inside a cafe, while photographing people passing outside. By not entering into a personal relationship with his subjects, he captures them in their natural, unguarded state. From this “omniscient” position, he makes significant choices. He chooses not to highlight people’s awkward failures of composure but rather their graceful normality. He comes close to seeing the animal in people, that part of them that is incapable of wrongdoing.
Streuli grants his subjects their native grace partially by the way he frames them. Streuli’s gestures show an awareness of Renaissance techniques for depicting movement, and his compositions are classical. Look at the first image of this book. The way this man is gracefully turning his body, left hand at his hip, the slight inclination of the head, the focus in his expression, all combine to render an image of a man confronting reality with a calm readiness, while in movement through the city. If we choose to press the animal analogy, with its concomitant vision of the city as a forest or jungle, then again we see these figures as necessarily prepared for the unpredictable. Because Streuli sees without being seen, it is almost as if we are given access to the interior mental workings of his walkers. They inhabit the moment in which awareness and absorption are seamlessly blended.
Streuli’s ability to keep background and foreground elements in sync is uncanny, and he is equally at home with single or multiple subjects. He perceives interactions between people with the same delicacy he lavishes on solo subjects. In the fourth image of the FIRST series, the action of taking a chip from a bag proffered by a friend is rendered with a grace and subtlety normally reserved for moments of the greatest intimacy. In fact, it is the greatness of mundane intimacy between people that Streuli stresses.
The painter John Sloan did not like the “Ash Can” label affixed to his work and that of his associates, who came to notice as “The Eight” with their 1908 exhibition at the Macbeth Gallery in New York. He said, “The subjects I found for the paintings were bits of joy in human life.”2 Streuli’s bits of joy are as based in the commonplace as were Sloan’s. As someone who began as an illustrator, Sloan liked to make wry observations of human nature in his prints, in the mode of William Hogarth or Honoré Daumier. In his paintings, though, Sloan and his contemporary George Bellows were content to let themselves drift in the colored pulse of New York’s streets. They let paint have its life, just as Streuli allows shadows and background elements to spread and soften.
Streuli comes after the epoch of cool, which began in the 1950s and continued through the 1960s. That demeanor determined that people can arrive in a picture as individuals, with social specificity that can be appreciated, but with no reducible message. This surface seeing has more to do with a photographer like Rudy Burckhardt than with Robert Frank or Gary Winogrand. Frank’s poetry is involved in political climate, while the irony of many of Winogrand’s observations is neither cool nor warm, but hot.
There is always a subject or subjects in Streuli’s New York photos. In his videos of city centers the subjects shift, but at any given moment can be identified. Streuli is not interested in an abstract “composition” or “flow” of humanity, but rather in the way in which individuals exist in moments, composing that flow. He pays close attention to detail, and the viewer is treated to specifics of hairstyle, clothing, electronic accoutrements.
Mumford railed against a paper world- “paper profits, paper achievements, paper hopes, and paper lusts…” Photography is not a paper achievement in Mumford’s sense, but a real one that happens to use a paper backing, as a poem might. Better than any other photography I know today, Streuli’s photography gets at what Mumford opposes to the paper world: “life itself, attenuated but real.”
Streuli comes after Mumford, though; he comes now. How could the early critic of industrialism fail to appreciate New York City’s evolving grandeur? Though he significantly reminds us that the term “sky-scraper” originated as the name for the highest sails of clipper ships, he does not love the buildings that took the name. Rather, he insists that New York”used these new utilities as a means of defrauding its people of space and light and sun, turning the streets into deep chasms….”3 Maybe it’s true that foreigners appreciate things natives miss. The native, with his attachment to a place’s former times, is horrified by change, while a foreigner drops into a situation fresh, able to see it how it is, free of history’s obfuscating lens. This seems all the more appropriate in New York, where there was little urban planning, each developer simply putting up his building without regard to what had gone before.
Streuli sees the drama of New Yorkss stark canyons, that striking play of explosive light and chilly darkness he captures especially well in his plates. The first two series (one in color, one in black and white) have similar viewpoints in terms of their perspective on the human figure. With the photos taken beginning in October, 2001, on Astor Place, there is a zooming in, which enables Streuli to play more with cropping and with disjunctions, such as that in the seventh double page of the October 2001/June 2002 series, in which each of the three figures appears as if in a different plane of existence.
Streuli claims that in this collection of series of New York photos “there is no reference intended to September 2001.” However, it is difficult to look at the dates (October 2000/April 2001/October 2001/June 2002) and be unaware that they surround that fateful September morning. Anyone who experienced those times in New York City will remember the strange knowledge that collected itself in people’s expressions in the days after the event. One imagines that some of Streuli’s people have those expressions.
It is with an open — what used to be called “American” — attitude that Beat Streuli approaches people. Scott Burton once decorated a bit of promenade fronting the World Financial Center with lines from the poems of Walt Whitman and Frank O’Hara that celebrate New York (they can still be seen there today). It is to the latter poet we might look if we wish to understand the basis of Streuli’s thinking:
“One need never leave the confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes—I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store, or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.”4
Streuli’s photographs make us believe again in the possibility of momentary joy.
1 Lewis Mumford, City Development: Studies in Disintegration and Renewal (London: Secker & Warburg, 1947), p. 14.
2 John Sloan, quoted in Helen Farr Sloan’s preface to John Sloan: Spectator Of Life (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press/Delaware Art Museum, 1988) p. 9.
3 Lewis Mumford, City Development: Studies in Disintegration and Renewal (London: Secker & Warburg, 1947), p. 33.
4 Frank O’Hara, ‘Meditations in an Emergency’, in The Collected Poems Of Frank O’Hara (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), p. 197.