Important Art by Thomas Struth
58th Street at 7th Avenue depicts a near empty street lined with skyscrapers that dwarf everything falling within their vast shadows. Photographed from a central perspective - somewhere between a vehicle and pedestrian perspective - Struth's photograph displays little by way of intrusive stylistic application in favor of a stronger focus on documentation. There is an impersonal, truthful, quality to an image process that Struth has called "monumental emotional packages of overwhelming experience." The sense of detached isolation within an area usually brimming with civilisation recalls the stillness of Struth's mentors Bernd and Hilla Becher, and even the early twentieth century photographs of legendary Parisian street photographer Eugène Atget.
The foreshortened road draws the eye to the lower portion of the photograph, and in so doing, the height of the buildings are emphasized. Struth then presents a different perspective on a Manhattan typically perceived of at street level as an energetic metropolis. The building at the centre-left of the frame, to so-called "lollipop" building, meanwhile, caused considerable debate amongst architects and city officials who could not agree on whether Edward Durell Stone's 1964 design amounted to a pastiche or a bone-fide Modernist statement. The image might thus prompt the city-dweller to (re)consider the aesthetic value of Durell Stone's structure and/or their own humble position within the scale of their towering manmade environment.
Following his early black-and-white series of empty cityscapes, Struth began work on arguably his best-known cycle: the Museum Photographs in 1980. His Museum series featured large color photographs of people observing art in museum, gallery, and church spaces. Although his compositions comply with spontaneous snapshot aesthetic, Struth's approach was studied and designed to ensure that he captured the most appropriate art space dynamic. National Gallery 1 depicts visitors standing before three paintings, with Cima's Incredulity of St. Thomas (1502-4) occupying centre frame. Seen in various states of contemplation, Struth's photograph highlights the interaction (or lack of) between visitor and painting in the hallowed gallery context. The museum experience became a frequent focus for Struth who was disturbed by the visitors' habit of taking "pictures-of-pictures" with their phones.
By photographing the viewers and paintings into one composition, Incredulity of St. Thomas extends itself further into the gallery space. The richly-colored mantels worn by the various painted figures appear to echo the garments worn by the viewers, and the individual modes of admiration reflect into the visitor's own personal form of engagement with the work; one woman even leans towards the painting, suitably mirroring the left figure in the painting who leans and gestures towards Christ. In creating such an extension, Struth transfers the art status of the displayed paintings to the photograph and introduces the public as a prominent component of the art, resulting in a contemplative mode of engagement with the gallery experience. Paintings are usually only observed from a first-person perspective; with little-to-no awareness of those who surround us - the painting and only the painting is the focus. The role of the spectator is placed centrally as the subject of the painting, this allows her or him to explore the concept of viewing in itself, creating a multi-layered experience.
Between 1995 and 2003, Struth extended his large-format, color-saturated, Museum series when he began photographing places of worship, including San Zaccaria, a church in Venice. Struth used his camera, which he described as "a tool of scientific origin for psychological exploration," to observe religious groups and their place and habits of worship. As with Cima's Incredulity of St. Thomas, an artwork - Giovanni Bellini's altarpiece (1505) - is central to the composition. Visitors perch on the pews, some gaze towards the skies, others assume a praying position, and some are admiring of Bellini's magnificent altarpiece.
Struth's interest in architecture is still evident in the way he uses the church's columns to frame the composition. Meanwhile, the camera's long exposure time brings to the image a mesmerizing quality that is coupled here with an added otherworldly aspect showing in the blurred spectre of moving figures occupying the first three pews. In this image, Struth observes the different ways in which people choose to engage with their belief, and in a manner that is unobtrusive and non-judgmental. Struth's approach allows his spectator to connect with the subjects in the photograph and to become involved in the photograph's narrative.