top of page

Details of a Street

Exploring Guan Zhuang street between home and work, 2020

When looking repeatedly at Beijing’s streets, some details may reveal the complexity of urban life in unexpected ways. When walking on the same street every day for three years, these details become familiar to the attentive passer-by, who traces his own route looking for what has remained still and what has changed on that street.

Similarities and differences

When arriving in a city, we see streets in perspective. Sequences of buildings with no meaning. Everything is unknown, virgin. Later, we'll have lived in this city. We'll have walked in its streets. We'll have been to the ends of the perspectives. We'll have known these buildings, lived stories with people. When we'll have lived in this city, we'll have taken this street ten, twenty, a thousand times. After a moment, everything belongs to you because you've lived there. The Spanish Apartment, Cédric Klapisch, 2002, min.14

 

Some street details become well-known reference points on a quotidian walk while others may always be surprisingly new. The former arise from what has been seen, heard and experienced in a daily intimate meditation—a sort of ritual in walking on the same pavement day and night, in winter and summer, somewhat decoding daily life in its similarities and differences. Some actions become well-established; some sounds are expected to be heard, some people and objects are expected to be seen, one is grasped by urban rhythms before grasping them and, at the same time, there are constant changes, most of which go unnoticed by the same people who walk down their own street every single day. As such, there are details of street life that I might not be able to see, appearing when I am not present, which are the other twenty-three hours of the day, or they may have been there for years until one day I suddenly notice them for the first time. Consequently, any representation of that street may be incomplete, given the ephemeral nature of the urban space as well as the human and material limitations to observe and make it visible. The most imaginative minds may continue this unfinished narrative by raising questions on what one may learn from the everyday liveliness of a single delimited street.

Capture d’écran 2020-11-29 à 14.14.00.png

Research question: How to capture and classify all possible details within a 900m street area?

GZ_3.jpg

Every day, the same pavement, the same trees, the same buildings. What has changed from yesterday?

Extract from my photographic journal: Walking along Guanzhuang street.

Scaling repetition

There exist several visual projects that inspired me for using images to capture and tell unexpected aspects of urban reality. Richard Howe’s extensive photographic project, ‘New York in Plain Sight’ (2008), stands as a visual archive that encapsulated the sense of life found at the 11,485 street corners of Manhattan. Each corner was depicted through a single photograph, serving as a memory—a fragment of seconds showing buildings, sidewalks, and the public life of citizens. Similarly, Sylvain Ageorges’ book ‘Paris sans paroles’ (2012) also offered a remarkable visual census of the city, exploring various categories such as floors, doors, signs, benches, statues, pigeons, among other elements that make Paris immediately recognisable. These minutely classified particles appear to contain the entire essence of the city. In contrast, the series ‘Windows from the world’ by photographer André Vicente Gonçalves (2009), delved into a city’s windows, highlighting the subtle differences between buildings and later, between cities, as he embarked on a city-by-city journey to reproduce the same collection.

However, the encounter between social research and art in framing streetscapes was best depicted in a scene from the movie ‘Smoke’, directed by Wayne Wang in 1995. The main protagonist, a small Brooklyn tobacconist store manager (Harvey Keithel), explains to a recently widowed writer (William Hurt) why he takes a daily picture of his own shop:"More than four thousand pictures of the same place. The corner of third street and 7th Avenue at eight o’clock in the morning. Four thousand straight days in all kinds of weathers. That’s why I can’t never take a vacation. I gotta be in my spot every morning at the same time. Every morning at the same spot at the same time. It’s my project. What you’d call my life’s project […] It’s my corner after all. It’s just one little part of the world but things take place there too just like everywhere else. It’s a record of my little spot […] They are all the same but each one is different from every other one. You got your bright mornings, your dark mornings. You got your summer light and your autumn light. You got your weekdays and your weekends. You got people in overcoats and galoshes and you got people in T-shirts and shorts. Sometimes the same people, sometimes different ones. Sometimes the different ones become the same, and the same ones disappear. The Earth revolves around the Sun and every day the light from the Sun hits the Earth at a different angle" (min. 12 to min. 18).

As we saw, the first project depicts thousands of corners within a borough, the second presents a city through different categories, the third exhibits different cities through a single category, and the fourth shows the daily life surrounding a single corner over many years. While the first three projects are real, the fourth, though fictional, is no less plausible. It is undeniably the most demanding, considering not only space but also time, valuing the significance of everyday occurrences. It is also the most personal, involving the photographer in capturing his own shop, illustrating how an in-depth research project may measure everydayness. Further, the first three projects traverse the city while the fourth remains static. When comparing their methods, the second and third projects predominantly use close-ups to capture the city’s material and physical elements, while the first and fourth are particularly attentive to social life.

Despite divergences among these photographic projects, let’s now concentrate on their similarities. All four aim to observe and represent urban life through visual methods. Most importantly, their common ground lies in repetition—be it 11,485 corners to analyse a borough, not one but dozens of categories photographed to analyse a city, not one but dozens of windows to analyse dozens of cities, not one but thousands of mornings to analyse a single corner. Further, all four researchers comprehend the intrinsic relationship between the process and result of their research. They impose themselves strict rules to maintain objectivity, steering clear of subjective pursuits of beauty that might compromise their methods. In this regard, the first and fourth projects exhibit greater rigor, while the other two allow some liberties by also considering aesthetics. Though varying in objectivity, each produces captivating results that could be perceived by some as thoughtful artworks and by others as visual pieces of research. Last but not least, these projects suggest other creative possibilities. Let’s imagine for a moment capturing all corners of a city on the same day at the same time. What about doing it at night rather than day light, in all four seasons or every five years? Imagine photographing doors instead of windows—every door on a street rather than a city. With enough inventiveness and resources, projects of this nature are endless.

The filming project

For him [the rhythmanalyst], nothing is immobile. He hears the wind, the rain, storms; but if he considers a stone, a wall, a trunk, he understands their slowness, their interminable rhythm.

Henri Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis, 2004, p.30.

 

The street I chose to study is known as Guanzhuang, a seemingly uncharacteristic place at the east of Beijing that held a particular interest for me as an observer as it connected the residence where I lived for more than three years from 2017 to 2021 to my workplace at EWFZ High School. Since my arrival, I often enjoyed this fifteen-minute walk from one end of the street to the other, considering its lively yet relaxing pace, often thinking of portraying its social and spatial layers through sounds and images. Sometimes in the morning, if not in a hurry, I would slow down my walk to observe what happened around me as if I was every day rediscovering the unforeseen character of that street.

 

In my research, I sought to bring coherence to the many details found within the chaotic tapestry of the street by collecting, classifying and analysing them across the following categories, ranging from the most static elements to the most dynamic: (1) Floors (2) Walls (3) Urban furniture (4) Stores (5) Words and Images (6) Lights and Colours (7) Transports (8) People (9) Objects and Trash, and (10) Nature. The continuum upon which Static and Dynamic are positioned is unquestionably imperfect, yet it allowed me to contemplate the degree of movement inherent in the elements constituting each category. People, tree leaves and plastic bags are more likely to move far away from their initial location and show greater impermanence than the materials and structures comprising a street.

 

Therefore, between the summer and autumn of 2020, following years of active contemplation, I embarked on the filming of Guan Zhuang’s physical, social, and multi-sensory environment to create a twenty-five minutes short film to support this research project. Rather than focusing on the entire expanse of the street, the emphasis lied on the 900m segment between my residence and my workplace. The film unfolded in two to three-minute chapters, each dedicated to showing a specific category. If the chapter was on transportation, only cars, bikes, buses, and other vehicles were shown on the screen, either individually or juxtaposed with four to six other shots. At times, shots encompassed more than one category, such as scenes where floors were visible prominently in the foreground while cars or pedestrians appeared in the background, showing an interplay between categories.

While the camera may have occasionally captured unusual events that scarcely happened every day, I have strived to only document the mundane and unveil what I could frequently observe. As such, most elements appear monotonous in their repetition as they were nearly identical from one day to the next, yet subtle variations persisted, making them challenging to capture on camera. Today’s sparrow was not yesterday’s magpie, sunlight changes, and blue shoes may be followed by red shoes seconds later, with only the former making it into the frame. While there are countless details that I have not recorded when they are actually out there, it is interesting to note that I have seen more of them through the lens of the camera that without it, as I was fully concentrated in chasing them wherever they were hidden. The same happened while recording sounds as I could wait in a corner attentively listening to them evolve around me, or actively pursue them by strolling down the street. Therefore, this whole experience in collecting, classifying and analysing through filming and editing revealed three key discussion themes to the project: identity, scale and cyclicity.

Identity and scale

These ten defined categories as universal traits of urban life can be examined in most city settings, as all streets share common elements such as pavements, walls, and pedestrians. However, when visually represented, streets reveal distinct elements that encapsulate the unique essence of their local life, proving to be singular characteristics of their identity. Guanzhuang may seem a rather unattractive and unimportant place of Beijing, yet its apparent insignificance reveals more about the city than what one may think at first sight. In reality, every found element is a significant detail belonging to the street, much like a window and a door are details of a building or a freckle and a nail are details of the body. The street is not just within the city; it is the city, and without these details, neither would be exactly the same.

While individual details do not show the street in its entirety, collectively they form an endless mosaic that simulate its true essence. When filming to access and investigate social life, the nuances we observe may seem smaller compared to the vast field in which they are found, yet they remain intricately connected to the broader urban landscape. A street consists of thousands of individual fragments and each of them carries meaning, yet the meaning of the whole street cannot be truly understood without having first studied these individual fragments. There is indeed a connection to make between the local and the global, the specific and the general, as we scale up or down what we observe. The ability to see a detail can be trained by momentarily isolating it from its surroundings, but due to its strong association to the street, thoughts of one will often evoke thoughts of the other. Ultimately, regardless of the frame we choose to look at details in their fragmentation, identity and scale are intertwined, as they will be perfectly defined in their characteristics if seen close enough or blurred as a touch of colour in an Impressionist painting if seen afar, both being valid approaches when placing particularity in the totality.

Cyclicity

What has changed here since yesterday? At first sight, it's really the same. Is the sky perhaps cloudier? It would really be subjective to say that there are, for example, fewer people or fewer cars. There are no birds to be seen. [...] I couldn't say whether the people I'm seeing are the same ones as yesterday, whether the cars are the same ones as yesterday. On the other hand, if the birds (pigeons) came (and why wouldn't they come) I'd feel sure they would be the same birds. Many things have not changed, have apparently not budged (the letters, the symbols, the fountain, the plaza, the benches, the church, etc.); I myself am sitting at the same table. Georges Perec (1982) An Attempt at Exhausting a Parisian Place.

 

The street unveils much about public life, experiencing expected cyclical changes—from the chirping of birds on spring mornings to the hum of crickets on summer afternoons, from the autumnal shedding of leaves to the frost and muddy pavements on wintry days. It encompasses not only nature but also social life, from the bustling of school gates twice a day to the long queues forming in morning shops for breakfast and in the afternoon for pastries or meats. The street is covered in red during every October’s national holiday and Chinese New Year while the corners’ floors darkens when bonfires are made to honour the dead. As a lively commercial street, Guanzhuang’s shops engage in their cycles of opening, closing, and leaving the street for new shops to come. Even people follow cycles of presence and absence, as I may see the same old man doing his physical exercises everyday behind a bus stop, until one day, I may not see him anymore. 

Days change too, even though they may seem the same, and there will never be another 22nd of October 2020, the day I completed the film, which brings me back to the present moment. It was somewhat tragic to think that one day I would move somewhere else, and this street, along with the sense of belonging it brought, was not going to be part of my routine anymore. I was therefore driven to capture its current essence both in reality and in my memory before it inevitably fades away. The short film, though tedious to watch due to its lack of action, was the culmination of this introspective reflection, encouraging viewers to appreciate the nuanced details that make our everyday streets unique and significant. While a project of this scale may not offer a comprehensive analysis of every detail, it still attempts to portray the visual and sensory appearance of the street by evoking a sense of its everydayness.

As the video project unfolded between my residence and workplace, I also attempted to capture cyclical patterns through a series of photographs. During three months, from early September to early December 2020, I took a daily picture of my residence and the school entrance, both in the morning on my way to work and in the afternoon on my way home. This experiment took place on workdays, with the same picture taken from the same spot between two trees. I sought to discern what would change and what would remain unchanged from morning to afternoon, from one day to the next, from one month to another, as the seasons transitioned from late summer to late autumn. In the blink of an eye, I witnessed changes in the light, the colour palette of the sky, the trees, the traffic, all through my disciplined attempt to capture a photograph every day as evoked in the movie Smoke, mentioned earlier, or even in Monet's Rouen Cathedral series (1892-1894) in his attempts of painting light.

From the city to the streets

Walking down the street repeatedly at a slower pace than others was not only an effective research method; it was also a reassuring exercise in times of uncertainty. One must have experienced months or even years of confinement to truly appreciate the freedom of walking. The year 2020 posed significant challenges due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and as restrictions constrained our movements, Guanzhuang became one of the most accessible streets near our residence. While the first project, “Stories from Beijing”, instigated a contemplative gaze and flânerie towards the city, “Details of a Street” enhanced that, yet assuming a more analytical approach, focusing on a smaller urban area. Building upon the rationale of framing and scaling down from the city to the street, a visual sociologist would aim to delve even deeper by studying an even smaller and more precise element within the urban landscape, one that is observed and used every single day, connecting inside and outside—ultimately, a window.

If you are in China, you may have to activate your VPN to watch this video.

bottom of page