Progression of Art
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 - Tate Modern, London, England
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