Thomas Struth’s photographs began to be widely recognised internationally at the beginning of the 1990s. By this time he had spent more than a decade working on a series of street pictures that he began as a student at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie, where he studied first under the painter Gerhard Richter, and then under the new professor of photography, Bernd Becher. Becher’s teaching, and the meticulous black-and-white studies he made with his wife, Hilla, of post-war industrial buildings and structures such as water towers, blast furnaces and pithead winding gear, influenced the approach of a generation of his students, including Struth, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff, Axel Hütte and Candida Höfer.
After a year in New York, where he continued his street pictures, Struth graduated and extended the series to Tokyo and to other European cities, including Edinburgh, where he had his first British exhibition in 1987. The black-and-white pictures – for the most part, devoid of people, though certainly not lacking signs of human presence – were all taken on a large-format camera from a central perspective, looking straight down the street towards its vanishing point as the buildings diminished equally on either side. The effect of this direct view, far from being neutral, compelled the viewer to study the pictures in extreme detail; to take in the overall construction of the street within the frame of the photograph, and then to study its individual elements as the eye travelled down the length of its development, scrutinising and evaluating all the way.
“Why do cities look the way they do?” was Struth’s central question to himself. “You can’t always say it is the responsibility of the architect, or the mayor or the politicians; ultimately it’s our responsibility.” This question was, he says, “a central part of the consciousness of growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, the confrontation with my parents’ generation, with Germany’s past, interrogating the structures and realities of dictatorship, capitalism and communism, which inevitably led to the question of individual and collective responsibility for the factual.”
The art historian James Lingwood, co-curator (with Achim Borchardt-Hume) of the exhibition of Struth’s work which opens at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London next month, believes that Struth’s photographs always have a “double subject … the specific places and people pictured, but also the mental spaces, the ideologies which shape these places and are in turn shaped by them.”
At the end of the 1980s, after living in Naples and Rome, Struth’s preoccupation with external spaces was replaced by a new subject – places of public worship, both secular and religious – as he began to photograph inside museums and cathedrals, this time studying the relationship between the crowds of ordinary people, mainly tourists, who had come to experience what had become iconic works of art, but which once had a contemporary relevance to their own time. “In essence,” he said, “I want to bring together the time of the picture and the time of the viewer.”
In the late 1990s, Struth’s work shifted away from global cities to tropical rainforests. More recently, he has been concentrating on structures whose form is dictated by new technologies – a semi-submersible oil drilling rig in South Korea, the interiors of the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching, north of Munich. Meanwhile, he continues to add to his collection of family portraits, begun in the mid-1980s, and which now includes families from the many countries in which he has worked, including China, Japan and South America as well as closer to home. He says the portraits function as a yardstick by which he can measure his progress. “The more family photographs I make, the more intriguing the project gets. I like the slow speed of the series and am interested in how my own development is somehow reflected in the atmosphere of the photographs.”
‘Thomas Struth: Photographs, 1978–2010’ is at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, July 6 to September 16. The catalogue, published by Schirmer/Mosel, is available at a special exhibition price of £29.95
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