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As a photography student at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in the 1970s, Thomas Struth and his classmates – some now photographic luminaries — Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff and Candida Hofer –– learned to create big, highly detailed pictures. At the time their teachers, the legendary husband-wife team, Bernd and Hilla Becher, taught a technically rigorous system to “objectively” document disappearing German architecture. According to the Becher system, subjects must be captured serially with a large-format camera using black-and-white film under a cloudless sky. All subjects must be shot from uniform distances and heights, printed with medium contrast at a prescribed size and shown together to facilitate comparison.
In his current show at the Met we see Struth’s homage to this exacting style — a wall-sized grid of black-and-white prints showing well-known New York City intersections in 1978. Older New Yorkers may treasure or rue these pictures as memories. But perhaps the point is that, soon enough, nobody will be alive to remember them. Still, there is much to admire in the way the pictures treat, not only the streets and buildings, but everything — every parked car, overloaded trash can and random human who walks through the shot — with exactly the same crisp, non-judgmental clarity.
This was Struth’s first major project. Afterward, he moves on fast. Without abandoning the discipline and technique he has acquired from the Bechers, he begins to take on large ideas and issues. It is his willingness to do so that animates this show.
In the 80’s Struth continued to shoot architecture and landscapes. Like his schoolmate Gursky, he takes up color and begins to use Photoshop to assemble from multiple viewpoints single images of large locations and structures. But, unlike Gursky, who over the years steadily creates more and more gigantic prints of larger and larger events, (the Chicago Board of Trade, the Olympics) Struth’s big pictures seem uninterested in spectacle. Gursky wins worldwide acclaim by moving farther and farther away from what he photographs. Struth moves closer. His pictures, though still large and complex, become more and more about the people present or implied within the frame. They radiate emotion that can be felt by anyone.
These qualities are best seen in the pictures the Met has collected from Struth’s three ongoing series – roughly titled, “Museum,” “Paradise” and “Technology.”
Struth’s “Museum” series comes from a simple idea. He photographs people looking at art and history in museums all over the world. Strictly realistic, rendered in sumptuous colors, these large, calm compositions at times resemble the Old Master paintings that appear in many of the prints. Yet the unrehearsed modern tourist crowds are always there too. Some museum-goers are reverent. Some are playing with their Iphones and thinking about their lunch. They bring a here-and-now immediacy to pictures meant to last.
The balance between large ideas – the present and the past, the material and the spiritual, for example – makes me wonder if Struth is aiming for the cusp between such opposites? Or do his museum pictures – like many of the old religion-based paintings depicted within them – reveal an inclination toward moral lessons? If so, the messages are hard to recognize, extremely subtle. Yet the question continues to rise.
Asked about the Museum series, Struth said, “… the ineffable spills into the ordinary and the spiritual aspirations of our ancestors intersect with the needs of the present.” It’s clear that with these works Struth is gesturing toward something beyond their quotidian content. In fact he is making art that imbues lifeless materials with human energy. Where does that energy come from?
We get to decide for ourselves.
One thing I think we know. In the Museum series this energy is no longer the same as it is in the old paintings. Unlike the paintings, the energy of the photographs is not directed at individual salvation. Its heaven, it seems to me, is salvation for all.
I think this becomes clear in Struth’s Paradise series. Photographed at ground level in various rainforests in Japan, Australia and Brazil, all the images in the series are called “paradise” and numbered. Only one, “Paradise 13, Yakushima, Japan 1999,” is included in the show. Yet, from this picture and others I have seen elsewhere, “Paradise” seems a very odd title for Struth to have chosen.
“Paradise 13,” is shot deep inside a low, wet, dark forest strewn with fallen trees and moss-covered boulders. It is certainly no Eden. Well-known as an ardent environmentalist, it’s hard to imagine Struth resorting to cheap irony. Some of the other forests “interiors” in this series are tangles of dazzling green, flooded with transforming light. Edenic. They are beautiful to look at, and, we know, vital to the health of our planet. But – come to think of it – real rainforests are always unrestrained riots of hungry competitive life. They are always difficult for humans. Struth is making a difficult point. The Earth too needs salvation.
With the “Technology” series, Struth asks: Does the human genius for technology threaten our species? Does technology also offer hope? These too are ultimately spiritual questions.
Struth’s “Hot Rolling Mill, Thysen Krupp Steel, Duisburg, 2010,” takes us into the silent interior of a gigantic industrial machine. By choosing an old German steel mill and associating it with the name Krupp, Struth is deliberately evoking Hitler’s Third Reich and the murderous weapons with which Germany almost conquered the world. And the picture itself — a vast brutal wall of grime-encrusted machinery in semi-darkness, its khaki greens punctuated with the faded, reds and oranges of catwalks and cables and fuses — is indeed terrifying. Even worse, a thick chain is bolted to the steel-plate floor in the only area lit by a window. Again, Struth knows what he is alluding to. It takes bravery to make a picture of this potent symbol. Struth has confidence in his photographic honesty and confidence that he will be understood.
If “Hot Rolling Mill” balances past and present, the most astonishing picture in the Technology series presents a kind of fulcrum between the present and the future. Called “Figure 2, Charite, 2013,” the picture shows a woman on a medical gurney suspended, head down, in mid air. Looping in from outside the frame is a cluster of literally hundreds of wires, tubes and cables, all of which attach to her body. At first, we recoil from what seems to be a Frankenstein-like experiment or perhaps some hideous torture. Then we notice that the room is spotless, the light is clear and the woman is young and blonde with beautiful skin. We are confused. What are we looking at?
The answer is an operating theater in Berlin, where this young woman is about to undergo surgery to remove a brain tumor. With the woman’s full permission, Struth has photographed the moment before the doctors and nurses enter. We learn in a caption that the woman survived and, two years, later is living comfortably. Still, we wouldn’t know that if we hadn’t been told. Has Struth intentionally frightened us with scary technology that is actually built and used to save lives?
I don’t think so. I think Struth is making use of his freedom to challenge the rest of us in an increasingly complicated and ambiguous world. His mentors, the Bechers, photographed water towers, silos and blast furnaces they judged beautiful – and safe to photograph – in a defeated, divided Germany after a vicious war. Now, more than a half century later, Struth photographs beauty where he wishes and uses its power to confront human problems.