PHOTOGRAPHS OF MODERN LIFE

From CITY - exhibition catalog, Kunsthalle Dusseldorf and Kunsthalle Zurich / Hatje Cantz Publishers, Ostfildern 1999
By Rupert Pfab



That a society consists of individuals may sound like a foregone conclusion, and trivial enough at that. We always associate 'society' with the notion of people or crowds or at the very least, with some notion of humans [1]. Amongst the quantities affecting us in any way, one of the most important, albeit difficult of all to grasp is that of society [2]. That human beings cannot be simplified to the term 'society', that the public spaces they populate play a deeply influential part and that again, 'society' cannot be restricted to a particular territory or a specific social group, is demonstrated by Beat Streuli in his photographs of people from major international cities.


Streuli's art is fuelled by his interest in what moves people in large cities. He ponders urban situations, their delights and disappointments, their countless psychological states and social networks [3]. He produces contemporary society portraits and in the making, also photographs the intense energy of the moment. The photographer submerges, as it were, in the crowd, whilst preserving some detachment from the passers-by through his telephoto lens. His pictures consciously evoke a hint of voyeurism and this consistently accompanies his perspective on people.


Streuli photographs individuals who tread the world's stage with self-assertion and evident self-possession. In a shot of 1998, a young woman is waiting at a crossing for the pedestrian lights to signal 'Walk'. She feels unobserved. Standing deep in thought, she is unaware that a photo camera is focusing on her. The woman is wearing a thin, close-fitting pair of fabric trousers and a tee-shirt that betrays the contours of her body beneath, a routine erotic appeal that has come to be part of the way young women in large cities of the western world see themselves. She is of an age that marks a transitional phase. Just as she is on the point of crossing the street, by which time the situation recorded in the picture will have dissolved irretrievably, she is about to leave a stage of her life and will then have begun another. Streuli, as he says, deliberately chooses people living in the phase between youth and adulthood [4].


The artist highlights a situation that encapsulates a much greater, global reality. The manner of his protagonists' entry on the scene is calculated to make a personal impression. All strive for individuality, but all are variants of a type of metropolitan youth with an internationally shared, generation-specific mode of presentation manifest in clothing, certain accessories, special fashion brands and in gestures and postures. In the process, it becomes clear that the quality of individuality is becoming standardised to a worldwide pattern.


In Streuli's photographs, what is round about becomes his theme. He records his daily surroundings and preoccupations. The various cultural roots and ages of his subjects admit societal inferences. Apart from his interest in seemingly incidental subjects and his elevating the banal to the rank of pictures worthy of exhibition, his photographs also betray a pronounced visual enthusiasm for material surfaces. They reveal an astounding sheen and sparkle in the sunny daylight.


Beat Streuli works with simple, contemporary means. The foreshortened perspective of the tele lens enables him to condense the subject and to concentrate on the individual person in a public space. The narrow angle of this perspective triggers optical forces that make for a visual intensification. Often, however, Streuli will not focus on people unless they momentarily drop 'their public face' [5] and feel unobserved. The people 'often [have] a somewhat absent expression', he observes [6].


He photographs passers-by in mid-movement. Presented as slide projections, each picture cuts to the next after an interval; the viewer can identify with the flow of pedestrians. The aesthetics of the advertising trailer and the video clip, which employ rapid cuts and astounding camera work [7], nowadays inspires photography as well as films and news broadcasts. Spots only seconds in length and the condensing of subjects by means of a helter-skelter succession of images mark the Coca Cola Company's commercials and their jingles become chart leaders [8]. Although Streuli's slide projection sequences seem extremely slow in comparison, the images defy the kind of considered contemplation which it is possible to devote to a 'normal' large-scale photograph or a painting.


In that effect, Streuli reflects the question as to what constitutes the actual work, for, in his various media, he occupies an artistic niche somewhere between the static and the moving image. His projections and photographic prints are the product of the moment of recording, the selected subject and the dramaturgy of the particular succession of images. In the videos, he captures people's movement from a rigid camera position and reproduces it in slow motion: precisely the opposite of what he achieves with the photographic camera.


His method, penetrating beyond the plane of simple reality reproduction, could be described as a quest to break out of the 'documentary realist' stereotype. Streuli's approach is to isolate reality out of its authentic context, condense it in multimedia processing techniques and restate it to form new aggregates of meaning. The picture subject is selective and the would-be objective prerogative of the photographic likeness becomes rather thin. Using slide projection highlights the mass potential of photography, but again, this is qualified by the artist's making large-scale photographs and voluntarily imposing the bounds of the limited edition. Both restore to the photographic image some of the 'aura' of the unique and 'genuine' [9]. That said, it still does not capture the essence of Streuli's art. What generates the aesthetic tension in his works is the choice of subject, the vehicle of his striving for maximum artistic influence on found reality. The formal device of reducing this to the detail shot produces a new quality. The plane of 'factual' image semantics that still largely pertained in Streuli's early, black-and-white photographs cedes in the new works to motifs of more complex aesthetic structures of meaning. They assert themselves in the viewer's consciousness y the intensity of the large scale; in the slide projections, they do so by the chosen succession of images.


The consistency in Streuli's serial approach and his different forms of presentation are evidence of an analytical turn of mind. The idea for a photograph comes to him before the instant of the shot itself. Chance and spontaneity are part of that approach. Even if his unswerving recourse to the same shooting procedure may lend the result the air of having been turned out in fast serial production, every shot is the outcome of a considered artistic process, both at the moment of shooting and later in the designating of the subject to be shown. In other words, his art is guided by conceptual methods. It is consistent that the greater concept of the ouvre is always part of the subject of the individual picture and only those subjects that accord with the general concept are candidates for pictures.


In the literature on Streuli there is repeated reference to his proximity to Walker Evans's Subway photos [10], for each of which the American took a photograph of the person opposite him in the carriage. The observation that the element of the seemingly chance in Streuli is not unlike Evans's is not untenable at base; but it overlooks the genre's sheer abundance of street scenes with passers-by, so that this alone is not a significant factor. The motif is also to be found in painting. Caillebotte, for instance, painting in the 1880s, had strollers cut by the edges of the picture as if they had walked across the artist's view, comparable to the photographer's situation when someone walking in front of the camera inadvertently blocks the view just as the shutter is released. Such considerations in turn do not take into account that accelerated pictures of the kind familiar today did not exist in Evans's or Caillebotte's day. Speed has influenced our perception fundamentally and the cinematic energy of the video and computer-graphic image brought overwhelming change in photography. The point stands even though Evans was inspired by the film still, since films, too, and the rate of cuts in succession in particular, have become faster since his day.


Time in Streuli's photographs has not only been arrested, but also made perceptible as the speed and movement of people. This is achieved in part by blurring or the off-centre location of figures in the composition.


Jean-Christophe Ammann speaks of Streuli's 'missing his subject when he takes a photograph' [12]. It is the overall situation, however, the mood and atmosphere in these pictures along with the societal information they convey, that constitute Streuli's central theme and thus the individual subject. It never subsists in the people alone.


The artist also makes a distinct feature of the fact that his photography is made up of picture sequences. Moving pictures, word and sound lend film and video a narrative potential unknown to the single photographic image. Streuli's photographic, but modern device is to work in groups of images which he projects fade-in/fade-out fashion, so anchoring his visual languages in the area between the static and the cinematographic picture [13]. The technique enables him to render tangible the dimension of time between two movements or 'stills' and to orchestrate loosening or compressing effects into the score of his sequences as he sees fit. So he brings still photography's serial potential to bear and discovers an untapped complexity in his medium.


Another effect of the slide projections is a visual opening of the projection walls and a virtual extension of the ambient space. The projected images appear to emanate their own light. The more sonorous, spatial lights in the photographic colours are mobilised. This light, emerging from a deeper stratum of the picture space, appears to radiate out towards the beholder from within.


Contemporary, media-imprinted society lives with a tide of advertising images dominated over by the large-scale photograph and the cursory glance has become the norm if not on occasion the only resort. Paradoxically, Streuli's images cannot be approached other than in calm contemplation [14]. The people in them, isolated out of bustling street prospects, come to view in a way they would not attain without Streuli's photograph. His method recalls advertising shots in which, again, the pictorial message is patently made the focal point [15].


Every photograph showing a human being is a representation of a real individual, but a record of a view never to be experienced in a living encounter with another person. Streuli's people likewise cannot be seen in reality as they have been recorded, since they are either in motion or in situations they would have left at the next instant.


People's faces are pivotal to his úuvre . The face in a picture is always the focal point that captivates the viewer; but nowhere are the disputes attending the human face as virulent as where photography and film are concerned.


Portrait-like views allow us to look a person in the eye so that we may, as Kant had it, 'be aware of that which we should have to expect from him. [16] The independent individual shows and simultaneously conceals her/himself. We see only the face, stance, clothing and possibly the hands; we cannot hear the voice of those portrayed or discover anything either about their inner being or their history. Therein lie both the secret of a subject's self-possession and the problems that an analysis of that subject would pose [17].


In the 1980s, Thomas Ruff also took on this question of individuality. He ((Ms 8)) took photographs of young people he knew personally and who belonged to his generation and social sphere [18]. They were, for the most, students at the Kunstakademie at Düsseldorf or people who were accustomed to photographic shooting situations and the general idea of that kind of artistic project. Ruff aimed to show the impossibility of subsuming an individual's personality in a photograph and that at best, one might have an image of the sitter's face. Whereas Ruff's figurative depiction categorically denies the possibility of showing a person with all that would imply, Streuli poses the question anew. A passing encounter with another human being - with an unprepared glance that chances upon us, or one with other thoughts or no distinct thoughts at all behind it, is far more apt to indicate some centre, a person's inner being and the presence of a life of the soul, than would a deliberate studio setting arranged with that aim.


Lighting is another factor crucial to the question of the lucidity (!) of a person's photographic portrayal [19]. This is particularly true for Beat Streuli, rejoicing as he does in the play of shadows and contrasts and the effective composition of his pictures. All this places at his disposal an inexhaustible stock of surprises and so gives him infinite scope in the manner of portrayal. At the heart of these pictures the secret is at work of a sure, intuitive apprehension of the human face. That is at least one contributor to their persuasiveness.


Streuli's is not a venture of sociological analysis; but its precise depiction of realities and the concentration on certain groups render a many-layered picture of societies in large cities.




[1] Klaus Podak, 'Wir können unseren Augen nicht trauen. Wie man lernt, komplexer zu denken: Niklas Luhmann und seine epochale Theorie der Gesellschaft' in Süddeutsche Zeitung, arts section, 6-7th December 1997

[2] For Niklas Luhmann, society is a system that works without people. He includes people as environment. Cf. his detailed treatment of the subject in Luhmann, Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft (Frankfurt on Main, 1997)

[3] Trevor Smith, 'Everyday Arcadias' in Über die Welt/About the World. Bondi Beach/Parramatta Road, book cat. for the Beat Streuli exhibition at the Sprengel Museum, Hanover (1999), p. 3

[4] Cf. 'Beat Streuli, Prix Montres Breguet d'art contemporain. Ausstellung in der Kunsthalle St. Gallen. Ein Gespräch mit Beat Streuli von Martine B guin und Jean-Paul Felley' in fön 11 (Nov.-Dec. 1994). Reproduced in Pakt. Photographie und Medienkunst 5 (Jan./Feb. 1995) p. 14 ff.

[5] Beat Streuli interviewed (1994), see Note 4

[6] Beat Streuli interviewed (1994), see Note 4

[7] Siegfried J. Schmidt, 'Cover contra Spot. ber den optischen Mehrwert des stillen Werbebildes' in Norbert Bolz, Ulrich R ffer, (eds.), Das große stille Bild (Munich, 1996) 150-188, here: 175

[8] Siegfried J. Schmidt (1996), 175

[9] Walter Benjamin, Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (1936; Frankfurt on Main, 1977) 13

[10] The most recent by Trevor Smith, 'Everyday Arcadias' (Hanover, 1999). One should add that Evans' photographs were in the context of his studies of New York.

[11] Paul Virilio, Rasender Stillstand (Frankfurt on Main, 1997) 35

[12] Jean-Christophe Ammann, 'Beat Streuli' in concertinered exhn brochure at Oldenburger Kunstverein for Beat Streuli (Oldenburg, 1998)

[13] Beat Streuli interviewed (1994),see Note 4

[14] Cf. Norbert Bolz, 'Das große stille Bild im Medienverbund' in Bolz and Rüffer (eds.) (Munich, 1996), 18

[15] For some time now, Streuli has also been showing his pictures outdoors, placing them wittingly close to advertising photographs

[16] Immanuel Kant, Anthropologie in pragmatischer Absicht VI (1964), 639

[17] Gottfried Boehm, Bildnis und Individuum. Über den Ursprung der Porträtmalerei in der italienischen Renaissance (Munich, 1985) 14

[18] The photographs were taken between 1981 and 1991

[19] This question is elaborated fully in Aenne Biermann, 'Von der photographischen Darstellung im Allgemeinen und vom photographischen Unterricht im Besonderen' in Thüringen, Year 5, V (1995), 81 f.