It could seem like a bold statement for the artist Thomas Struth to position himself in the place of Michelangelo’s David, and let crowds of tourists gaze in wonder at him…couldn’t it? Especially as this is the first of his life-size photographs one looks upon entering his retrospective (1978-2010) at the Whitechapel. But Thomas Struth appears to have only just accepted that the art world may view him as a photographer at all. In his mind he is and will always be an artist (who uses a camera).
The first gallery of work seems geared to such a paradigm. There are, like those initial prints: ‘Audience 06’ and ‘Audience 01’, scenes in and in front of museums and iconic buildings, which point to art and culture since the 80s. Then there are shots of technology at work such as the underside of a space shuttle at Kennedy Space Centre, and a distillation column at Gladbeck. Both topics have been dealt with in a logical, and ordered manner, which seems to me terribly German, and not entirely art of the now, yet I love it. These scenes however are a statement of our period – a secularizing society is putting its faith into technology, and adoring and pious church-goers are now culture-hungry tourists.
The key to his neatness seems to be that in each photo only the best bits are left. Asking himself at each re-evaluation: what don’t I want in this picture? And as only a talented photographer could, in each shot much of interest remains. The picture of the Pantheon (Rome, 1990) is one of his most sober. One man stands two thirds of the dome’s width across staring up to the temple’s oculus. Behind him a crowd gather, to their left, and to their right in triangular form, a couple of visitors stand. There’s a little red here, and a little red there.
We’re told this is posed, which makes sense of its streamlined patterning and colouring, but this is not the case of any other of his photographs, which are all found as they are later seen. In this case, Struth seems to have an in-built ordering eye, that finds a shot that makes great sense in each place that one is taken. Even in ‘National Gallery 2’ where all that is photographed is one of Vermeer’s ladies in an interior, proportions are perfect. The light the surrounds the painting, and hits off against the adjacent wall sets the tone for the golden light of the oil, and the barrier that only just enters the space of the shot, is as golden as both of these – a light is reflected on the ideal diagonal.
Perhaps the neatest of all is one of his family portraits, ‘The Richter Family.’ Mother and Father sit each on one leather chair, with one half of the landscape frame each. Perching upon Mrs Richter is her daughter, gripped by her mother’s open hand held to her stomach. Mr Richter leans back on his chair, his lap open for his son to sit upon, he supports himself by an outreached hand to a nearby glass table. His son’s left hand too sits on the table, but limply his hand speaks. Its power chills the viewer and it is so satisfying to only look upon.
Audience 06, Florence, 2004
National Gallery 2, London 2001
The Richter Family, Cologne, 2002
If you like Thomas Struth’s photographs you may also like Hannah Starkey’s (as I did) so have a read of my blog from January.
This Thomas Struth retrospect stays at the Whitechapel Gallery until 16 September – catch it soon!