Beat Streuli does not take photographs of buildings, or of the city as such, yet his is undoubtedly an urban art, perhaps quintessentially so. It is an art made in cities, to be seen in cities; more often than not it is seen in the same city in which it is made. Perhaps, then, it is seen by the very same people that appear within it – Streuli takes photographs of people.
In London’s Oxford Street, two young men stand as though emerging from the dark frieze of people behind them, one with his finger raised to his mouth puzzlingly, the other’s lips pursed, as whistling his disbelieving appreciation of someone – or something – beyond our sight, two women – mother and daughter? Spanish? – are fixed uncertainly, the elder studying a map intently, the younger’s arms fixed, unnaturally, as in some mannequin pose; a young boy holds a toy shop bag and yet peers more inquisitively into another, unmarked, held by the person next to him, his brother perhaps. And then there are those people on New York’s streets. A woman dressed in black looks forward uncertainly in the direction in which she is pushing her baby-buggy; a man, his face marked by shadowed lines, squints slightly in the bright light, as though trying to make something out, the lapels on his jacket sharp like blades; a woman stands listening to her mobile phone, her left arm wrapped around her waist, stickers and graffiti marking the darkened wall against which she leans. ‘I love NY’ says one. ‘Nuke it’ says another.
How do we know that these are images of the city? In some case it is obvious: a subway sign, for example, or a yellow cab hovering brightly in the background. Yet these merely confirm what we already know. Perhaps it has something to do with the light, harsh and indifferent, characteristics which remind us of the city. It was nearly a century ago that the German sociologist Georg Simmel wrote of the new forms of human interaction that were emerging within the ever-expanding cities. Being faced with the increased pace of the city – often moving erratically, disorientatingly, unexpectedly – was too much for most of the urban population, Simmel thought. There was so much going on, so many more people, so many more things to get to, or to avoid, that it was not surprising that many became nervous or irritable. The strategy for coping with this increased urban mass and momentum was the creation of a form of distancing or detachment, a mental space within which the city dweller could move, while moving through the city itself. Simmel characterised such a strategy in three connected ways: the adoption of a matter-of-fact attitude towards people and situations alike; a related sense of social reserve which often manifests itself as a blase attitude; and the use of style or fashion as a masking of individuality rather than its expression. All three characteristics remain familiar in almost any urban situation although, as we know, if the situation changes remarkably, then the characteristics can do so too.
I think that one gets a sense of these strategies when looking at Beat Streuli’s images. Perhaps much of this is due simply to the technical limitations of photography – the images we see are quiet and still and we know that the city certainly is not. There is perhaps another reason also, one which is also connected with technology, and that is Streuli’s use of a telephoto lens. The use of such a lens has a distinct effect upon the image, and upon that which is caught within the image. It has the effect of isolating the figure from his or her surroundings, of course, as the lens allows a much tighter framing of the subject. But as it also provides a much smaller depth of field, it also has the effect of isolating the figure within that space which remains visible, a point of definition when all else is diffuse and uncertain. It is as though even amongst so much, so many, the figure stands alone. There is a sense of relief or freedom to be found in surrendering to the crowd, certainly, as Elias Canetti famously pointed out, and yet, as Simmel also observed, it ‘is obviously only the obverse of this freedom that, under certain circumstances, one never feels as lonely and as deserted as in this metropolitan crush of persons’.
Streuli’s use of the telephoto lens is interesting in another sense, a sense which affects the appearance of his images certainly, and which also relates interestingly to the urban experience, particularly as Simmel saw it. In a recent interview, Streuli described the process by which he makes his pictures: ‘I like to be flexible in the way I take pictures. I do not use a tripod, and I move around in the crowd, of which I am myself part. Therefore it is a constant back and forth, being closer and more distant, sometimes concentrating just on a face, sometimes on a couple or a group of people. Here, too, I try to preserve the dynamics of the street, and my way of using the camera tries to approximate as much as possible the way we see: focussing on details, opening up to wider angles, and composing all these very short, fragmented impressions into a larger mental picture.’ The telephoto lens, which allows Streuli such freedom to shift his sight so easily through the crowd, is in many ways simply a technical manifestation of another important characteristic of urban life, as Simmel saw it, that of the stranger: ‘The unity of nearness and remoteness involved in every human relation is organised in the phenomena of the stranger, in a way which may be most briefly formulated by saying that in the relationship to him, distance means that he, who is close by, is far, and strangeness means that he, who is also far, is actually near. For, to be a stranger is naturally a very positive relation; it is a specific form of interaction. Perhaps we might see this ‘specific form of interaction’, as Simmel describes it in his classic essay ‘The Stranger’ (1908), within the work of Streuli, then. The sense of a relationship is important here, for as Simmel notes, ‘The stranger” is an element of the group itself. His position as a full-fledged member involves both being outside it and confronting it.’ It is a role which I believe describes Streuli’s position well. He is part of the crowd through which he moves, as he acknowledged in the interview quoted above, and yet he is somehow apart from it; he is involved and yet involved differently from everyone else; he is close to the inhabitants of the city, and yet it is not his city. Streuli is able not only to embody these social and spatial tensions which are so common in urban life but also allow them to inhabit the work which he produces as a result. Perhaps this is what makes his images so familiar and yet so disconcerting – we recognise what they show although we don’t recognise who they show. Like the urban tensions described above, this sense of unease is something which must be accepted rather than resolved.
We can see this in Streuli’s video also, filmed in the centre of England’s second city, Birmingham. The work shares some characteristics with other projects of Streuli’s, in particular its central location. As Streuli has noted of another project, based in Chicago, ‘The downtown area provides a neutral background for pictures of people who come from all kinds of places, thus liberating them from the cliched role they play in more critical photography and allowing them to be respected just as the people they are.’ One noticeable – and important – difference with the video work is that rather than moving through the crowd himself in order to ‘fix’ a person – ‘I pick my models out of the never-ending crowd of passers-by using the simple criteria that I think someone looks interesting and has an open, living expression’ – now it is the camera which is fixed and it is the crowd which moves passed its gaze. We see a mass of people moving slowly towards the camera, as though floating, a ripple crossing the surface as they rise and fall with each slowed-down step. People fill the screen, or rather just their heads, their faces, the tops of their bodies. Everything else is hidden – their legs, the floor upon which they walk, their surroudings. Here, it is people which surround people, not buildings, people which are in turn surrounded by more people.
In standing before this crowd, the viewer becomes a part of it and therefore adopts the role of the stranger. We share closeness without intimacy, acknowledge presence without requiring revelation. It is our eyes, now, rather than Streuli’s, which dart through the crowd, almost without our realising, fixing upon someone we find attractive, perhaps, or familiar, and yet we are separated by more than psychological distance here; between the crowd and ourselves is a rupture of time and space.
Perhaps, in the end, this is why Streuli creates images of people which are in many ways so specific, and yet in many others so indeterminate. These images record a precise interaction, and yet the time and place of this action, the when-and-where, is left imprecise – a city and a year is all that we are given. As Simmel might say, the stranger is able to concentrate upon that which is unique only because he acknowledges that there is so much which is already shared – ‘universal human similarities’ – and so perhaps we might usefully see Streuli’s projects as complete and yet simultaneously part of something larger, like an individual within a crowd. In doing so we will be able to consider Streuli’s practice not only in relation to some of Simmel’s most interesting concepts, but to the sociologist’s practice as whole, as his student Siegfried Kracauer saw it, as a beautiful coming together of many different things: ‘…the phenomena make their appearance in their capacity as complexes of connections … Since the only significance of the threads spun between the phenomena is to make the hidden connections visible, their paths are quite irregular and arbitrary; they are almost systematically unsystematic. It is utterly insignificant where one ends up when casting them out and fastening them together, so long as one ends up somewhere. This web is not constructed according to a plan, like a firmly established system of thought; instead, it has no other purpose than to be there and to testify through its very insistence to the interconnectedness of things. Loose and light, it extends itself far and wide and gives the impression of a world that emits a curious shimmer, like a sunny landscape in which the hard contours of objects have been dissolved and which is now only a single undulation of trembling light veiling individual things.’
[With thanks to Jake Desyllas, Intelligent Space, London.]