A monumental oil or gas platform is chained near a quayside in Korea. In the foreground a couple of little men lean over bicycles. The picture makes a contrast between the 19th-century man-size technology on which we all depend in practice and the monstrous investment-guzzling 21st-century technology in which we are asked to lodge our hopes.
It is, to be frank, a nothing-much picture. If you happened to have been on the quayside at the Daewoo shipyard at Geoje Island in 2007, you could have made it. Your verticals might have converged a bit because you don’t have the mastery of a large-format camera to keep them parallel, but still. Whether you could have printed it is another matter. It is a huge picture. Thomas Struth tells me that printing machines can’t cope with anything wider than 1.83 meters: this print needs twice that. The sheer size allows viewers to wallow in detail: the ship moored further along the dock which announces “Safety First” on its superstructure, as if warning of the perils that became so apparent with the Deepwater Horizon in 2010. The cigarette the nearest man with a bike is holding, his personal health a tiny subset of the health of the planet.
Some of the secrets of the work of Struth are in that picture. About how he has managed, over more than 30 years, to get quite simple inquiries taken utterly seriously. About how he has revelled in the photographic – detail, veracity, legibility – while remaining always superior to the merely factual. I would call Struth a conceptual artist, were that expression not so thoroughly discredited. An artist who delights in thought? He certainly is. He reminds me of Ulrich, the hero of Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, perpetually trying to squeeze the world into a framework of ideas which doesn’t always fit.
The giant size of Struth’s prints is not only about making his pictures more visible. It is a tool to prevent the eye bouncing away at first glance. We slide on photographic surfaces and often leave them before taking in everything beneath. In a giant print the eye roves around the image, guided by the very traditional forces of composition, until enough time has been spent on it. That dwell-time is Struth’s victory. By staying on and in the print long enough to have some thoughts set in motion by it, we feel it to be somehow thoughtful.
Oddly, this doesn’t always work with me. Gigantism does not in itself make a great difference to my reactions. That is why I can find the oil rig relatively ordinary.
The rig is a bit of a departure for Struth. He used to work in formally connected series, very tightly applying a formula in picture after picture. Over the years he has gradually loosened his constraints (and, in so doing, distanced himself steadily from the work of his teachers, Bernd and Hilla Becher, the founders of the Düsseldorf school).
Now, it seems, he is prepared to let a single monumental picture work on its own. Since so much of photography has been appreciated in terms of the coherence of full series, this is a striking conclusion for a great artist to have reached in middle age.
The best of the series remain amazing. Struth has, for example, for many years been studying the way we consume high cultural masterpieces, in his series of images set in museums. A diptych here shows the crowds gathered in front of Michelangelo’s David. It is an ethnographically shrewd view, in which the quasi-religious experience of ingesting art is also a chunk of holiday time cooped up with strangers in leisurewear. At the same time, it is a notably tender view. Fully absorbed in trying to achieve the rapture they are supposed to achieve in front of a ranking masterpiece, many of the crowd unconsciously adopt the famous mannerist twisty pose of the sculpture high above them. The further thought, that the elephantiasis of the marble of a little ordinary guy who took on a giant is matched by the giant depictions of these quite ordinary tourists, is certainly not lost on Struth.
Another series, the Paradise series, is of plain-looking transcriptions of forests as they might look before man starts to tamper with them. Curiously, they parallel the late work of Sebastiao Salgado, whose Genesis has been an attempt to depict an Earth (as it was and no doubt as he thinks it should be) wholly free of human effects. Struth’s version is to suggest impenetrability. The screen of greenery parallel to each picture plane is a wall that shouts “Keep out”. They look as flat as tapestries and have much the same pleasure in intricacy.
It helps to understand his practice to think of Struth as an essayist. He finds a subject that interests him and tackles it. When he has said enough, he moves on. In recent years he has been thinking about technology and the (false?) promises it offers. A richly revelatory photograph from 2009 is called “Tokamak Asdex Upgrade Periphery, Max Planck IPP, Garching”. Not many people will understand the title: I certainly don’t. And even fewer will have any idea of whether the tangle of wires and hard metallic components manages to do whatever it is intended to do. Yet the picture is unmistakeable. It looks like a human heart, fragile and cluttered.
This is one good angle from which to see Struth. Even when there is nobody in the pictures, he remains concerned with people. These are the explorations of an artist who finds that we – mankind – keep getting into a pickle. He is of the post-war generation (Struth was born in Germany in 1954). His early pictures brought to mind the absolute necessity for reconstruction not merely of buildings and infrastructure but of the people these things are there to serve. Hardware and software, stuff and people: this endless contrast has been enough to become Struth’s lifelong theme. Add that (as a pupil of Gerhard Richter) he has always been strongly interested in the way we depict ideas and you have another of his great themes.
Sometimes Struth makes a mis-hit. I remain indifferent to his Family Portaits, which are just that. His Times Square is much as your Times Square would be if you could be bothered to photograph it. His view of that most photographed of mountains, El Capitan, in Yosemite park, as an idol drawing the faithful to its feet is nearly good but not really good. The mis-hits are not saved merely by being enormous. Yet the utter seriousness of his enquiry triumphs over even these irregularities. Just like an essayist, Struth asks us to think. Isn’t that enough?
‘Thomas Struth: Photographs 1978-2010’,Whitechapel Gallery, London, until September 16. www.whitechapelgallery.org
For a video of the exhibition, including commentary from the artist and curator, go to www.ft.com/arts-extra