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Thomas Struth’s photographs—of cityscapes, of church facades and museum interiors, of individuals and families, of forests and jungles—are usually praised for their nearly clinical objectivity. Struth himself has said that a photograph “has a clear language, one that speaks openly not only about its subjects … but also very much about the attitude of the photographer toward these things. In this regard, a photograph is always objective.” After about 20 years of postmodernist chatter about art’s inescapable ideological, cultural, and psychological biases, Struth’s and his admirers’ belief that art can “communicate” a universal perception is pretty refreshing.
It’s also pretty prosaic—and luckily, a lot of nonsense. The only certainty you come away with after a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current retrospective of Struth’s photography, which includes work from 1977-2002, is that his stunning pictures are anything but straightforward.
In the lobby of the Met, you find, projected on the wall on either side of the entrance, two prolonged, filmed images of people staring into a camera. The accompanying wall text innocently informs you that these barely moving pictures represent the essence of Struth’s devotion to the camera’s promise of disclosure. But as you continue to look at Struth’s subjects, you begin to suspect that the artist’s relationship to his camera is not so amiable or benign.
Struth’s people are smiling; they are staying put; they are trying not to move. But they are not at ease. Their self-consciousness seems to weigh more heavily on their faces with every passing second. Their chests are heaving under their clothes; they are breathing hard. They look like they want to leave, but they can’t leave; the artist, one assumes, has instructed them to stay and stare.
And you, too, want to leave because the sight of such discomfort itself makes you uncomfortable. But you cannot leave because the appearance of someone else’s suffering, or at the very least of their coercion, demands that you stay and stare and try to figure out exactly what is going on. In the meantime, people are pouring through the Met’s large glass doors, unself-conscious, uncoerced, about to encounter and enjoy art, not, like the subjects of Struth’s photographs, to be confronted and interrogated by it. In other words, this is an artist who uses photography to express a radical skepticism, perhaps even a contempt, for the camera’s various impositions on its subjects.
How, then, can anyone take Struth at his word when he talks about photography’s clarity and objectivity? After all, he was trained in high-aesthetic mischief-making. He studied painting at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf with the German artist Gerhard Richter before he took up photography, at Richter’s suggestion. Along with Sigmar Polke, Richter labored at an alternative to the German neoexpressionists—Lupertz, Penck, Immendorff, Baselitz—who still believed in painting as the pre-eminent visual art. Richter and Polke took as their subject painting’s beleaguered position in a world increasingly dominated by film, and by photography in particular. Richter especially became famous for deconstructing painting even as he, with love, displayed his mastery of it.
Though this seems never to have occurred to Struth’s admirers, he, too, is deconstructing photography even as he is displaying, with love, his mastery of the medium. His jungles look like the potted plants in a dentist’s office. His cities look like props. In his lushest, most gorgeous landscapes, particularly the landscapes populated by clumps of Richter-like trees, he even seems to imply that the best photography aspires to the condition of painting, just as Richter implies that the best painting aspires to the condition of photography. Struth wishes, mischievously, to show his former mentor that photography hasn’t spelled the death of painting, after all.
Consider the quietly breathtaking cityscapes Struth made throughout the late ‘70s and ‘80s. Critics usually contrast these almost perfect geometric serenities with the cinematic dash and sweep of the photographs of Andreas Gursky, who is often cited as Struth’s chief rival. Unlike Struth, Gursky clearly believes that photography has surpassed and displaced painting. He has said that “the very analytic, clear eye of the camera is one of the great characteristics of photography. But it’s not the truth—it’s much more.” More than the truth! He sounds like Kandinsky, or Rothko, or Kiefer. Appropriately, each of Gursky’s pictures has its own idiom, its own internal necessity, as do the German neoexpressionist paintings that were being made when Gursky and Struth were cutting their teeth. It’s no surprise that Gursky has, of late, taken to digitally manipulating his images, just as the neoexpressionist painters emotionally distorted their figures.
Struth’s photographs, on the other hand, make his very diverse subjects seem indistinguishable from each other. They are so structurally kindred that the Chicago Board of Trade looks like Venice’s San Zaccaria church, which in turn resembles Yosemite’s El Capitan mountain. The dash and sweep is not in Struth’s pictures but in, as he would say, “the attitude of the photographer toward these things.” Like the work of Eugene Atget, the great French photographer who snapped thousands of pictures of Paris from the late 1890s up until his death in 1927, Struth’s cityscapes—of Düsseldorf, and Naples, and Chicago, and Tokyo, and New York—almost never have people in them. But Atget’s eye, so sensitive to his city’s emotional nuances, fills his peopleless spaces with humanity. Struth’s pictures, with their balance and perfection, drain his empty streets even of impersonal charm. He reduces them to a very obvious geometric grid; they seem like textbook studies in photographic composition. The vanishing points in Crosby Street, New York (SoHo) (1978) and Sommerstrasse, Düsseldorf (1980) almost shout their presence in the same position in both pictures, making these two very different cities look identical.
Soon a Neapolitan corner, a New York street, and another anonymous German strasse, all structured in a uniform manner, become stage sets for the dramatization of a subtle philosophical outlook. Something lyrical and poetic, Struth seems to be saying, something idiosyncratic and irreproducible has gone missing since art went mechanical. In his gifted hands, photography’s “clear language” offers a beautiful revelation of its own limits.
Struth’s remarkably precise family portraits, of Germans and Americans and Chinese and Japanese, lose their distinctness under the pressure of that very precision and begin to seem as undifferentiated from each other as Struth’s cityscapes. To paraphrase the title of Walter Benjamin’s overcited essay—and Struth cherishes Benjamin—you might say that these impersonal, and even interchangeable, photographs express, for this artist, the fate of the family in an age of mechanical reproduction. Unsettlingly, perhaps even vindictively, these portraits reduce modern life to the abstraction that modernist painting, inspired by photography, once made of it.
This is why, in Struth’s magnificent museum photographs, the figures in the paintings seem uncannily more real than the actual, living people looking at them. Painting, you see, has a power that photography lacks. But it is not the power of some banal eternalness that we all have learned to think is the quality of great art. In Louvre IV, Paris, the dying figures in Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa—the seminal work of French Romanticism—breathe their mortality, their gradual extinction, while the Japanese museum-goers viewing it seem fixed forever in some mundane impermanence. In a photograph of people standing before a Seurat painting, the painting itself possesses all the briskness of being, not the people staring at it, and you recall that Seurat based his paintings on photographic principles.
Indeed, Struth’s empty streets, and his anonymous-seeming churches and families, and his contrived junglescapes (the series is ironically titled Paradise) all seem to undermine human beings, and human places, and human longing altogether. The question is whether these modest spectacles of soullessness are spiritual protests against soullessness or deliberate, defiant expressions of the condition that they represent.
No wonder Gerhard Richter’s eyes, in Struth’s portrait of Richter and his family, insinuate a sly, defiant, challenging smile behind their heavy black-frame glasses. His painter’s gaze, devoted to brilliant subordinations of painting to photography—is about to be trapped in what Struth regards as photography’s narrow, subordinate perspective.