A History of Now: The Art of Thomas Struth
The following is an adaptation of Charles Wylie's 2002 essay,__ "A History of Now: The Art of Thomas Struth," in Thomas Struth.
Born in 1954, Thomas Struth was raised in the state of Nordrhein-Westphalia, home to Germany's most important industries as well as the culturally rich cities of Cologne and Düsseldorf, where he lives and works. Struth began his studies in art in 1973 at the Düsseldorf Art Academy. When he entered the academy, he joined an important and fervent center for new art. Struth's teachers, Gerhard Richter, Bernd Becher, and his wife Hilla Becher, among them, pursued groundbreaking investigations into the characteristics and possibilities of the photographic image in art.
Examining the object and the question of the photograph has been a hallmark of Richter's art from the early 1960s until today. In his celebrated "photopaintings," which he produced partly in response to American pop art, Richter queried the nature of photographic information in his use of similar images taken from commercial culture. Going beyond a mere reproduction of the photograph in his paintings, he explored the way images do or do not transmit meaning, inadvertently or deliberately. The Bechers, on the other hand, employed photography in a more overtly analytic way. As a team, they created their signature works, series of photographs of industrial and domestic structures (blast furnaces, wood-timbered houses) arranged in grids. Employing a documentary-like approach, the Bechers amassed an archive of overlooked architecture that can be read for both its social and economic history, and for its illustration of how "common" structures can be aesthetically compelling.
Struth agilely steered his course between these two formidable sets of teachers. Initially drawn to painting, Struth first created hybrid black-and-white photographs and paintings, which depicted figures walking or standing in public places such as shopping areas and street corners. The figures are isolated, covered, or surrounded by masses of red, yellow, or another single color. Dissatisfied with the inability of such images to represent the complexity of the historical moment in which he lived, Struth took his camera into the street and found that the background he was using for his paintings on photographs —the city itself—contained just such a complexity. Here was a place with its own history that could be coaxed into an image by deliberate observation and execution, a place that bore the marks of history and psychology in its buildings, cars, and sky in their interrelationship and their totality.
This time also marked Struth's first serious investigations of photography divorced from any other medium. Having taken Richter's advice to study under the Bechers, he was among the first of several students who in the 1980s and 1990s would come to be known as the 'Düsseldorf School.' Included were such well-known artists as Andreas Gursky, Axel Hütte, Candida Höfer, and Thomas Ruff, all of whom extensively adapted the Bechers' research-like use of the frontally posed, carefully composed photograph. Initially labeled 'objectivity,' a term entirely inadequate to describe these artists' depth of approach and effect, the Bechers' aesthetic has contributed forcefully to the cementing of the photograph as a central feature of contemporary art in both study and practice.
Struth certainly admired, and continues to admire, the Bechers' art. Yet in his own work, he wished to investigate the dynamics and character of a contemporary daily urban situation, how overlooked buildings define a city, and what they feel like in aggregate, rather than the historical subjects that the Bechers picture as individual units in comparative grids. Sommerstrasse, Düsseldorf (2001.261) clearly indicates Struth's working method. Taken early in the morning when human beings are absent, Struth's image (one of a series taken in more than fifty European and U.S. cities) presents a rigidly geometric vision of an urban stage. The single-point perspective is literally defined by the streetcar's power lines in the sky above and its tracks in the street below. The deserted and silent street, the lack of sky and trees of any consequence, and the superficially differentiated apartments of similar height contribute to the geometric order.
Struth's early black-and-white gelatin silver photographs of city streets show how the artist used and adapted for his own ends the notion of the photographic series, based on a documentary-like aesthetic of sharp focus and clearly visualized information. Such an approach was exemplified by the Bechers, and in turn can be traced back to the early 20th century German photographer August Sander, who also lived in the Cologne-Düsseldorf region, in the area of Lindenthal. Sander sought to create a vast, collective, comparative portrait of the German people. His best-known images date from the Weimar era of the 1920s and 1930s, and feature people from all parts of society. Sander placed his subjects in frontal positions that allowed a plethora of personal detail to suggest the subject's position and class in the culture. His portraits provide in total an unparalleled collective, analytic overview of the social and human dynamics of the time. While Struth's work has formal and conceptual similarities with the Bechers', and backward to Sander's, it is perhaps most striking and useful to remember that all these artists seized on photography not as a mechanism to take hundreds or even thousands of random pictures, but as an aesthetically oriented medium uniquely able to create an art of cultural and social analysis. Using photography's ability to register the external world, these artists pointedly ask us to consider the world anew through a steady and consistent aesthetic of measured composition.
Struth, for his part, has taken the idea of the photographic series and expanded it from his early emphasis on buildings to include people, cultural and religious sites, landscape, and industry as it exists today. He uses the lens not to pay homage to the work of his forebears, but to picture the world at present —our world. Further marking him as an artist of the present, Struth has taken advantage of the latest technology, which allows him to create large-scale color photographs of a different order than art has seen before. He has traveled to Asia, North and South America, and throughout Europe to make images of the current world—its landscapes, people, and religious, domestic, cultural, and commercial architectures—that possess the scale and power associated with Old Master paintings (a subject Struth makes explicit in his museum pictures), with a refusal of sentimentality and exaggeration.
The idea of families, of how one's place in the world is determined by one's place in the architecture of the family, prompted Struth's second series. Citing his own family's photo albums as an initial spur, in the mid-1980s Struth pictured groups of family members arranged in domestic settings that brought out the innate psychological intensity present whenever a family gathers. Struth's families are clearly related in physical characteristics; the viewer can trace similarities the children have with their parents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles. Examining the physical, however, is only the beginning of the viewer's psychologically loaded task of reading the relationships between one member and another. The group must be read in its entirety, and each family member placed by position, posture, gesture, and facial expression in the complex interweaving of emotion and experience encountered in relation to family. Struth avoids the sensational in these works by allowing the sitters to compose themselves for the camera. This approach is partly a function of the camera he has chosen to use (specifically, the length of time the shutter must remain open), but it means the subjects are fully aware of themselves and conscious of how they present themselves to the camera (and for the image). The same can be said for the individual portraits, in which the sitter posing before the lens appears quiet, even becalmed.
Struth's museum photographs have brought the artist the greatest renown. They are signature images in the emergence in the last two decades of the large-scale color photograph as a dominant motif in the art world. Facilitated by advances in technology, Struth's work in the format parallels that of his fellow artists in Düsseldorf, most famously Andreas Gursky. In large-scale color work, the negative is developed onto a large sheet of photographic paper that is adhered directly to a Plexiglas plate and then framed. The resulting intensity of light-saturated color on a grand scale had few precedents when the photographs arrived in galleries and museums in the mid-1980s.
Struth notes that the museum photographs grew out of making the portrait of the art historian Giles Robertson as he sat in his home surrounded by paintings. Wanting to explore the relationship between people and art on a more public level, he proceeded to investigate the sites where this relationship is most overtly cultivated: art museums in large cities where the work on view is given an entirely different identity and dynamic than originally intended by artist and patron. Struth, specifically, has captured people looking at art—the very same activity his viewers engage in when they look at his own work. In these works the visual culture of another era, gathered by later ages, informs the visual and social arenas of the present. Whether this has salutary effects seems not to interest the artist. Struth's aim, rather, is to capture the dynamics of the public and private exchange that occurs in an art museum between spectator and object, and to make this exchange explicit. Struth's viewers convey a range of reactions, from boredom to rapture, while the works of art themselves, many of which we are used to seeing in reproduction, act as both agent and backdrop for the human dramas enacted in front of them.
The museum photographs correspond in scale and subject to Struth's interior and exterior views of religious architecture. In all of these works, the notion of a building devoted to the spiritual exercise of faith is compromised by the presence of tourists who are there, one supposes, not to satisfy their spiritual selves but to look at whatever they hope to find in art and architecture. Struth's series of museums and religious buildings present similar situations—viewers in search of what they feel art can bring them, whether in a church, a temple, or a museum. These images point to the continuing need to visit sites of meaning in a culture that has difficulty deciding what, in fact, is a place of worship and what is a place of display.
In 1991 Struth began his work in landscape photographs, starting with a commission for a private hospital outside Wintherthur, Switzerland. From this initial foray at Winterthur, Struth's interest in landscape expanded to include locations around the world, from the forests of Japan and Brazil to the Nevada desert. Later works present an odd hybrid of nature and culture, taking us into a place where the technology of the present becomes an overall landscape that fuses separate notions of the two. The gleam of technology and the density of industry are strong in these works, such as Boats at Wushan, Yangtse Gorge/China (2000.376), which depicts a fantastic world of machinery melding with a traditional landscape.
Struth expanded his early black-and-white urban series into full-blown color evocations of the contemporary city, in all its confusion, exhilaration, and intensity. In picturing these places, Struth again relies on the considered, often central placement of the camera—which feels like center to the viewer—to capture as wide a range of visual matter as possible. The tactic in this case, more than in any of his other works, mimics the vision of the walker in the city. The large-scale works arrest the kinetic vision of the city in an unexpectedly archival, instantly historically cast moment, despite their up-to the-minute subject matter. An advertisement for a film is outdated a week after it opens; and the time changes on a billboard. Struth's own name for many of the works featuring such technological feats is "modern miracles," a term as ironic or as earnest as one wants it to be. "Modern" has entered the history books as a catch-all for events happening since 1789 or 1860 or 1907, depending on one's perspective, and miracles are not really supposed to be made by or of machinery. Yet there is no denying the transformative powers of the technologies to which Struth's photographs allude, and indeed of which his photographs are, in their scale and finish, a part.
The large-scale color photograph since the mid-1980s has carried an ever increasing importance to younger artists, a development for which Struth is among the most responsible. The work of a number of younger artists attests to the dominance of photography in current practice. The medium corresponds to the mechanical nature of so much of our daily experience, as well as to the premodernist idea that flat works on a wall, before they are anything else, should be pictures of something or someone. A case can be made that photographs have indeed taken the place of history paintings, becoming the preferred medium with which to tell stories. To state it flatly, photography is not painting. We can dispense with the inevitable arguments about painting's relevance, craft, and technique. Though necessary for photographs to be made, craft and technique hide themselves more readily in photography; yet they are there. Photography is of today and looks like today, and can be adapted to any number of purposes while retaining the hand of the artist (in subject matter, development technique, scale)—an unprecedented situation that reinforces the attractiveness of the photographic image to describe the present moment.
The art of Thomas Struth provides a history, then, of the present moment. His works picture in formal terms (based on rigorous aesthetic/conceptual precedent) situations of commerce, culture, people, and landscape found around the globe today. Struth analyzes the present with an intensely refined sense of what is worth looking at, and what is worth capturing, to plainly state the facts while forcing the eye beyond normal observation. Struth's art, encompassing cities and people, nature and culture, and landscape and industry, contains within it a breadth of vision and range of ambition that perhaps paradoxically exist within the confines of the straightforward photograph. Yet he has done more than most to loosen photography from its traditional moorings and launch it into a world of unprecedented opportunity, to communicate the complexities of our present moment of perpetual change.
Charles Wylie, "A History of Now: The Art of Thomas Struth," in Thomas Struth (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art, 2002), 147-155.
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Take a virtual tour of the Dallas Museum of Art's 2002 exhibition of Thomas Struth's work.
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Learn more about Thomas Struth's work at the virtual tour of the exhibition "Thomas Struth: Photographs 1978-2010."
New York Public Library on Livestream
Watch a video of a conversation with Thomas Struth at the New York Public Library.
Read an interview with Thomas Struth.
The J. Paul Getty Museum
Learn more about August Sander.
Learn more about Andreas Gursky.
Learn more about Candida Höfer.