PHOTOGRAPHS OF MODERN LIFE from CITY - exhibition catalog, Kunsthalle Dusseldorf and Kunsthalle Zurich, 1999 Hatje Cantz Publishers, Ostfildern
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 . Amongst the quantities affecting us in any way, one of the most important, albeit difficult of all to grasp is that of society . 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 . 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 .
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'  and feel unobserved. The people 'often [have] a somewhat absent expression', he observes .
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 , 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 . 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' . 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.