Thomas Struth

editorial commissions

Thomas Struth: Photographs 1978-2010

Whitechapel Gallery, 6 July - 16 September 2011

Review commissioned by Blueprint magazine.

One of the great pleasures of shooting with a traditional large format camera is the detail that can be resolved in the resulting prints. No matter how closely you look at the image, more information reveals itself.

The same can be said for German photographer Thomas Struth’s astonishing photos, captured using such a camera. The gigantic prints can be enjoyed superficially, but closer examination is highly rewarding, disclosing highly complex layers of meaning. This is an artist who clearly loves to explore, seeing the world in intense detail through the ground glass viewfinder of his camera.

Struth’s huge prints echo the scale of epic canvasses, reflecting his initial studies as a painter, before switching to photography and studying under the high-concept minimalists Bernd and Hilla Becher at Düsseldorf’s Kunstakademie. But while the Bechers stuck rigorously to the same programme of photography throughout their careers, Struth’s work has evolved.

These strands in Struth’s career are deliberately dislocated in this long-overdue retrospective. It has been curated to emphasise the variety of his vision, mixing up the works, allowing visitors to make their own connections.

Despite the randomising, it’s easy enough to trace several main trajectories through Struth’s career: From small(ish) to large to larger; From monochrome – in the tradition of the Bechers or US topographical photographer Walker Evans – to lush colour; From the local streets of Düsseldorf to European cities and beyond, to the US, Japan, China, Korea and South America.

There are parallel long-term series of urban studies and family portraits, while other projects are more contained, such as his celebrated museum photographs and rather less engaging images of jungles.

The Whitechapel’s three-decade overview of Struth’s work encompasses the deserted streets of New York and unplanned housing encroaching upon the slopes of Cerro Morro Solar in Lima, Peru. There are vast interiors of churches, mindboggling images of complex scientific installations and startling views of gallery visitors ogling artworks. All are recorded with extreme precision, delivering a body of work that records epic human achievements, from cathedrals to oil rigs, paintings to spaceships.

In her forward in the show’s catalogue, Whitechapel director Iwona Blazwick describes the “technological sublime” of the industrial structures featured in Struth’s images, such as Asian shipyards or American test sites. Her view is that they are “chillingly inhuman” but this really doesn’t come across when you view the smaller details.

In the biggest photograph of the show, depicting the vast Semi Submersible Rig DSME Shipyard on Geoje Island in Korea, the inhumanity of the herculean rig is tempered by a worker in the foreground unlocking his bike. Meanwhile, among the complex equations scrawled on the screen fronting a chemistry fume cupboard at Edinburgh University are several French phrases: “J’ai mal au nez... aux jambes”. They remind us that behind “inhuman” technological advances are real-life people, with their frailties and fallibilities.

This is particularly resonant in a panoramic shot showing the underside of a Space Shuttle, undergoing maintenance at the Kennedy Space Centre. The boxes of “TechWipes 3 ply tissues”, and what look like neon pink Post-It notes attached to the heat-proof tiles highlight the involvement of the human hand. Yet the failures of the Space Shuttle programme are all too easily remembered.

Indeed, a reading of these images might be about faith. Our faith in technology to deliver a better future, or our faith in God to guide us through our lives. Struth’s photographs might record a post-faith phase in our development. Where technological advances don’t always make life better, where places of worship have been reduced to tourist attractions. Where art is the new religion in a secular society.

The shots of museums are among the most fascinating here. From the very first works in the show - two of the Audience series showing museum visitors looking at Michelangelo’s David from a viewpoint just below the famous genitalia – one becomes aware of being in an art gallery, viewing images of people looking at artworks in other art galleries. Struth has said: “I sometimes wished I could be the painting looking at the audience”.

Of course, the artworks featured themselves have something to say, adding to the meanings. The stand-out photograph is entitled National Museum of Art, Tokyo. It depicts a room, darkened except for a hermetically-sealed white box containing Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People loaned by the Louvre. Standing to one side is a guard, while in front is an audience appearing like theatre-goers staring at a stage.

Kept at such a distance, the experience must be akin to sharing a room with a famous work of art rather than visually enjoying its textures or finer details. There’s also irony, as Struth’s photograph emphasises extreme restrictions in viewing rather than the freedom trumpeted by Delacroix’s masterpiece, not to mention asking questions about how something so specifically about French culture would resonate with this adoring Japanese audience.

Like so many works in this essential show, it raises issues about the purpose behind visiting exhibitions, of shared experiences and our relationship with art, faith and technology.