Summary of Thomas Struth
Struth was a fundamental player in elevating the status of photography to new heights of artistic credibility. Known for his observational approach and the sheer scale of his images, which are on a par with historical painting, he uses his camera as a means of presenting his audience with what he has called "the undeniable truth of what is in front of you." As one of the members of the Düsseldorf School of Photography he helped promote the ideals of Bernd and Hilla Becher which finds the art of photography in the German documentary traditions of August Sander and the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement.
Best known for his photographic "series" - street, audience, family portrait and new technologies series - Struth has a strong nomadic streak and has travelled to the corners of the world for his art. More recently, Struth has undertaken expeditions into densely overgrown tropical forests and jungles to produce images he has called (perhaps with a little irony) "new pictures from paradise."
- Struth valued the camera as means of communication which has a "clear language" all of its own. He was a forceful champion of the objective properties of the photograph and has stated that he is "interested in photographs that have no personal signature." However, Struth has remained mindful of the fact that the images the photographer produces must reflect his or her own attitudes towards their subject. In that respect, his huge, minutely detailed, tableaus are always recognizably "Struth photographs".
- Struth approaches his photography as an "intellectual process" in which he uses his camera to arrive at a better "understanding of people or cities and their historical and phenomenological connections." His photographs therefore straddle the domains of art and artefact through the way in which he asks us to reflect on the routines of modern living.
- Struth acknowledges that he has the instincts of a restless wanderer. Indeed, he believes that the photographic artist "sharpens their own existence" by learning of foreign and distant cultures and of the similarities and differences between alien cultures. In its truly global reach, his oeuvre fully reflects his "global-village" worldview. On a personal level, however, he has stated that the Renaissance -like scale of his compositions, and their stillness and clarity of detail, represents his attempts to silence his inner wanderer. Speaking of his Jungle series, for instance, he has stated that his aim was to produce images that audiences could look at "forever and never see everything" and he was personally gratified to observe how audiences looked "very quietly into the Jungle pictures [and in an even] deeper silence than usual."
- More recently, Struth has turned his lens away from human interaction and jungles onto technological, manmade structures. Following in the spirit of the Bechers, Struth became captivated by monumental buildings and structures that served only practical ends and which had hitherto evaded the notice of the art world. However, Struth went further than his famous mentors by taking his camera into the interiors of these buildings, producing images of cluttered technological "junk" that are as knotty and dense as his jungle foliage series. Struth called these images "landscapes of the modern brain" and his aim was to produce, not so much still images, but rather photographs that were "somehow exhausting" to look at.
Important Art by Thomas Struth
58th Street at 7th Avenue, Midtown, New York
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.
Silver gelatin print
National Gallery 1
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.
Chromogenic print - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
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.
Chromogenic print - The MET Museum
Having gained the blessing of its director Franco Falletti, Struth was given the opportunity to work on his Audiences project at Galleria dell'Accademia. This time using a hidden camera, Struth captured photographs in the room in which Michelangelo's David (c. 1501-4) was displayed. Through its reversed "art looking at audience" perspective, Struth's photograph might have appealed to the Surrealists. Groups of figures gaze upwards towards the work from close and afar, some tilt and crane their necks in an attempt to obtain a better perspective, others appear in conversation and contemplation, while others appear somewhat distracted or even bored.
Struth's observational photograph appears to share many mutual components with paintings. His composition recalls an arrangement befitting its context as the range of expressions and postures exhibited by the figures comply with Leon Battista Alberti's treatise on Renaissance painting, in which he claimed that a variety of expressions and body languages create the ideal work of art. Additionally, Struth's photograph can be analysed from a purely aesthetic perspective. The visitors reflect against the smooth marble floor, and the individuals are coded in their clothing choices, with khaki greens, pale pinks and crisp whites enriching the photograph's color composition. One might also read into the image a subtle humor in that the spectators are gazing in awe at the world's most famous naked man!
The Falletti Family
Struth began working on his family portrait series through an initial collaboration with Ingo Hartmann, a friend of his who worked as a psychoanalyst. Hartmann suggested that he document families to understand how family dynamics may present themselves from a research perspective. In 2005, Struth photographed the Falletti family, the opportunity arising through his acquaintance with Franca Falletti (former director of Galleria dell' Academia). Struth's families were encouraged to select where and how they preferred to be photographed. The Falletti family are pictured in their home, Franca is the only member who stands as she descends down a small set of steps with an air of pride as the head of the family. Her children lean in towards the camera, and one of them casually pets the family dog. The father appears to the far right, partially obscured by one of his children. Struth's lack of intervention allows the Falletti family to become the artists in their own composition which appears to subvert the nuclear family dynamic (since Franca is presented as the household's breadwinner). Though this composition originates from Europe, Struth, an avid traveller, wanted to see how culture and location may influence familial relations over the world.
Queen Elizabeth II & The Duke of Edinburgh, Windsor Castle
Commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, Struth was given the opportunity to photograph the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh in the Green Drawing Room at Windsor Castle. The creation of this portrait involved much preparation. Three weeks prior to the sitting, Struth travelled to Windsor Castle to select the room. Struth was even asked to select the dress that the Queen should wear.
The royal couple are positioned on a seat tilted towards the lens and are backed by wooden panelling set within shadows. Most significant to the result of the picture is Struth's utilisation of light. Contrast is created between the foreground and the background, and the light is particularly concentrated towards the Queen, emphasizing her stately presence. The seat has been strategically tilted so as to bring the Queen closer to the viewers' eye. Despite the air of royal prestige within the visuals, the Queen and the Duke are not portrayed as distant from the viewer as they smile gently towards the camera. This photograph emphasises Struth's ability to balance context and individual in a portrait so that one does not override the other. By combining the opulence of their surroundings with the comfort of their warm expressions, Struth's empathetic perspective results in a memorable portrait that allows the viewer to connect on a personal level with the heads of the British monarchy.
Modern print from c-type color print - National Portrait Gallery, London
Biography of Thomas Struth
Thomas Struth was born in 1954 in Geldern, North Rhine Westphalia, Germany, to Gisela Struth, a ceramic potter, and Heinrich Struth, a bank director. Thomas was born nine years after WWII (his father was a soldier in the Wehrmacht and was shot twice) and he claims that growing up in post war Germany had a profound effect on his worldview. This was especially true when working on his family portraits series which, he claimed, always prompted him think about what his own family did under fascism.
Struth's interest in the creative arts developed from a young age. He recalls how at the age of just nine his father, who had been on an overseas visit to America, gifted him a book about New York by Don Hunstein (probably: New York: a book of photographs (1966)). Struth remembers this as a particularly memorable book and it inspired his fascination with the medium. His mother was particularly enthusiastic regarding her son's growing interest in the arts, and he recalls how she would frequently buy him books related to particular artists, including the likes of Paul Cézanne. Struth enjoyed drawing and painting (completing his first studied composition at the age of fourteen) but his interests not only pertained to art, but to music also. He learned to play saxophone and even joining his school band. Struth explained in a 2007 interview with the New York Times that somewhere between the ages of fifteen and sixteen he began to develop an interest in travelling. His wanderlust stuck with him and the idea became a motif within his photographic work. Elaborating upon his interest, Struth described himself as a curious person, and championed his nomadic tendencies as "one good method to satisfy the curiosity."
Early Training and Work
Previously residing in Köln, Struth decided to submit his drawings to the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf and was duly enrolled as a student. After completing a gap year (in 1973) he joined the Kunstakademie where he studied under artists Bernd and Hilla Becher and Gerhard Richter. Initially, Struth studied as a painter alongside Richter, using photographs only as a reference for his painting. He later turned his interest solely to photography, stating that he felt that the photographic medium could address the public whereas painting was rooted in the artist's private life.
In 1976 he decided to concentrate on street photography and took to the streets of Düsseldorf, producing a series of forty-nine photographs. The series marked the beginning of Struth's detached perspective on bustling cities. His work was exhibited as part of the Rundgang exhibition, a student-orientated display that occurred annually. The success of the exhibition helped cement Struth's interest in photography, and he took the decision to switch to training as a photographer under Bernd and Hilla Becher, founders of the Kunstakademie's dedicated photography department. It was through the Bechers that Struth was introduced to working with the large format camera, an apparatus that became central to the production of his signature work. He described the Becher's as committed teachers but rather casual, recalling how they often met with him in restaurants to discuss his work. It was in the photography department that he made the acquaintance of other artists, including Thomas Ruff, Andreas Gursky, Axel Hütte and Candida Höfer. The friends would become known collectively as the so-called "Becher School."
By 1977 Struth had moved to New York where he was awarded a MoMA scholarship while working at the PS.1 studio. In the year that followed he photographed various city locations including Wall Street, Soho, and Brooklyn. Demonstrating his objective, documentary-like approach, the fruits of his scholarship were showcased at an exhibition in 1978. On completion of his scholarship, however, Struth left New York (which he had found rather imposing as a city) for Europe where he visited, and resided at, a number of locations. While in Europe, Struth started to expand his repertoire, producing photographs on aspects of culture, religion, and architecture. In the early 1980s, Struth's photographic career was put on hold while he fulfilled his national duty to undertake civilian service work (which he did in a small print shop in a community centre in Düsseldorf).
In 1984 Struth visited Rome, photographing its architecture; and then Japan, where he began work on his Families portrait series (1987-90). He returned to Italy in 1988, residing in Rome and Naples. While in Italy, he stayed with the photographer and Kunstakademie student, Janice Guy, and Giulia Zorzetti, a restorer of old paintings. Indeed his friend Guy became a sitter for the above-mentioned Families series.
In 1990, Dieter Schwarz, director of the Kunstmuseum Winterhur in Zurich, offered Struth the opportunity to take photographs for a hospital wing in Lindberg. Struth accepted the offer, producing photographs of flowers and landscapes. Remarkably different from his disassociated perspective of cities, Struth had demonstrated his latent versatility. Between 1993 and 1996 Struth taught photography at the Staatliche Hochschule für Gestaltung in Karlsruhe, Germany. He said of the experience: "It was good, I liked it. I mean in the beginning, it was a strange thing because I was 39 when I started and I felt that it was very interesting to be a professor of photography because it sounds like a contradiction!" Between 2004 and 2007 Struth undertook his famous Audiences project while his nomadic instincts took him to China, Italy, America, France, Brazil, Japan and Australia where he photographed streets, forests, and places of worship.
In 2007 Struth married author Tara Bray Smith in New York. His marriage also marked the point in his career at which he switched his focus from human nature and culture to complex manmade structures. He produced photographs of structures that were marvelled at for their practicality, and which had hitherto never served any artistic purpose whatsoever. His new appreciation of the human ability to create extraordinary structures inspired Struth to visit the Kennedy Space Center in Florida (twice) and the NASA space museum. His visit to the NASA complex inspired him to call on many more areas in which new technologies were in the process of being created. He decided thus to create an extensive document on technology to encompass research laboratories in other countries, including Germany, Israel, Argentina and Scotland.
Marking a new turn in his artistic career in 2011, Struth was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery in London to create a portrait of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. The prospect was intriguing to him as he had previously shied away from photographing prominent people (even though he was well known for his portraits of "ordinary" people).
Struth's experimentation with subject matter took a new turn in 2014, when he was granted permission to photograph behind the scenes of Disneyland by the CEO Bob Iger. His focus on the theme park resulted in a series of "little worlds" that could sit alongside his photographs of the many cities he visited. Indeed, many of Struth's photographs of Disneyland do not reveal their recreational purpose at all.
Currently Struth lives and works between Berlin and New York. In an interview in 2012 with Talking Germany's host Peter Craven, he told the broadcast channel that despite living in Düsseldorf for nearly four decades, "when we moved to Berlin [he] felt that [his] life's history with Düsseldorf was fulfilled in a certain way." He is still very much in demand in America, and has revealed that he has even turned down a commission to photograph President Donald Trump.
The Legacy of Thomas Struth
The power of Struth's photographic realizations are beyond doubt and wide-reaching in their influence. Associated chiefly with the Düsseldorf School, he was, as a member of that most esteemed group (which included Candida Höfer, Andreas Gursky and Thomas Ruff) responsible for the creation of an "international style" for the photographic medium. He was, moreover, instrumental in bringing a new scale to the photographic image and its elevated status as "Fine Art" was reflected in the unprecedented prices they commanded. Indeed, through his skill of producing photographs on the scale of history painting, Struth presented works that could compete with the paintings hanging on the walls of national galleries. The colossal scale of Struth's work, combined with his fundamental desire to document the world rather that alter it, has had a great impact on contemporary photographers, and similarities with his work can be seen in the technique of Michael Wolf, and especially the latter's famous Corner Houses series.