Thomas Struth Study Visit

One of my objectives in undertaking the OCA course is to increase the range of photographers I have been exposed to, and in so doing, obtain a deeper understanding of that work.  This naturally sets in motion a process of making links between the work of many photographers.  Attending the OCA study visits, (this is the second one I have attended), helps a great deal:

  • I get to hear the expert views of the gallery staff which definitely helps with understanding the contexts and background to the work
  • I meet up with some of the other students and hear their views and their experiences
  • I am introduced to photographers and galleries I might not otherwise have visited.
Before the Struth visit, I knew of his name but relatively little of his work. I had come across the work of Bernd Becher, Struth’s professor at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf , in various exhibitions and lectures over the years.  I was also somewhat familiar with the work of one of his contemporaries, Andreas Gursky, having attended the opening of his exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery some years ago.  However, having completed the pre-visit reading, I was unsure of what to expect.  I understood what I took to be the idea of “The New Pictures from Paradise” – the irresolvable detail that leaves the viewer hunting around the image, trying to resolve it only to eventually realise that the very essence of the image is that it cannot be resolved.   As the Geoff Dyer article stated:
“the tropical foliage was often so dense and lush as to resist the scrutiny the images compelled.”
So, what impressions did Struth’s work leave me with, having attended Thomas Struth: Photographs 1978 – 2010?

Experiencing the real without the narrative

Struth’s 2010 images of high technology , for example Stellarator Wendelstein 7-X Detail, Max Planck IPP, Greifswaldplace, place the viewer in a situation where even though the photograph’s label states what it is, this does not help the viewer to understand the image.  The viewer is unable to relate any ‘story’ or narrative to the scene before them and as a result finds the mind struggling to find its way around the image.  This approach is also strongly apparent in the more recent work, “The New Pictures from Paradise”.  I’m not sure however, what the logical outcome of this approach might be.  In the Paradise images, one can imagine a future reality where the Earth has returned to primordial jungle and little or no trace of man and the “order” imposed by mankind remains.  Does a similar idea apply to the technology images – perhaps they serve to highlight our own lack of understanding, perhaps they show technology as a means to an end but then leave the question of “to what end and what ultimate purpose?” hanging in the air.

Scale

Struth’s colour images are large, very large.  I estimated the size of “Semi Submersible Rig DSME Shipyard” as approximately 6m wide by 4m high.  This huge image makes the viewer feel that they are viewing some Lilliputian scene as the huge rig strains at the relatively feeble looking, (but probably immense in reality), chains that hold it in place.  Similarly, the images in the Museum series, often from an elevated viewpoint, render the scale of the onlookers very small in comparison to the monumental structures they are viewing.  This is particularly true in the images of the Pantheon and Notre Dame.

Rules and exceptions to rules
Struth sets himself rules but then, infrequently, chooses to break them – a pragmatic approach that I believe works.  For example, most of his images are not ‘staged’, the museum visitors are bona fide visitors.  However, in the film accompanying the exhibition, Struth explains that for various reasons, this approach just wasn’t working for his image of the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.  In the case of that image, he drafted in 150 extras and directed the scene.
The family photos
I particularly liked the “family” series of photographs.  The rules applied, which Struth also explained in the film, were that the family must look at the lens, and that he would set the frame and tell them where it’s boundaries were.  The family were then left to their own devices to choose how they organised and presented themselves with the frame.  The families depicted were those with whom Struth had stayed and were drawn from many continents.  As a result, these particular images tell the viewer much about relationships within the family, status and power, and how the individuals and group choose to be presented to the world.  Struth apparently believes in Gestalt theory, that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and for this series I believe it to be true.  The families perhaps reveal more of themselves than had they been directed by the photographer.  Struth makes an interesting observation that the viewer of these images makes direct eye contact with the subjects’ eyes making them feel more engaged  In reality of course, the subjects did not make eye contact with Struth but looked into the lens instead – an example of the manipulation of reality by the photographer/photographic process.

Making links to the work of other photographers

As I viewed Struth’s work I made connections to other photographer’s I have studied.  In Struth’s early black and white images of streets I could detect echoes of Atget in the central perspective people free photographs.  I particularly liked “Clinton Road, London” which is one of the thumbnails available on this page.  Naturally, I could also see links to his contemporary Andreas Gursky, particularly in the images Struth made in Korea with the repetition of windows and muted colours.  However, unlike Gursky’s work – which is substantially created within Photoshop, Struth is presenting the real scene, as he found it. Finally, I could also make links to the work of other photographers I have studied, John Davies and Thomas Joshua Cooper.  I don’t necessarily think that these are explicit links but I could see common ground in the approaches and preoccupations.  Davies with his monochrome landscapes of the North West of England has some commonality with Struth’s early street work.  Thomas Joshua Cooper’s “Point of No Return”, although different, has some thinking in common with Struth’s “The New Pictures from Paradise”.

Summary

Overall this was a very worthwhile study visit, I learnt a great deal and made progress against my objectives.  A day well spent!

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