“Photographs reveal people’s inner agenda”
On the eve of his solo show at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, Thomas Struth talks about society, the family and the gaze
By Louisa Buck. Features, Issue 226, July-August 2011
Published online: 06 July 2011
Thomas Struth is best known for his monumental colour photographs of people looking at art in some of the world’s leading museums and galleries, unaware that they themselves are being recorded for us in turn to scrutinise. But these multi-layered images are just one of a wide range of subjects that the German artist, who studied with both Gerhard Richter and Bernd and Hilla Becher at the Düsseldorf Art Academy, has exposed to his particular and precise form of examination. For example, Struth recently photographed Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh for a portrait commissioned by the National Gallery in London to mark The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
In the mid-1980s Struth began producing a still ongoing series of multi-generational family portraits, made in close collaboration with the sitters and emanating an intense immediacy that is both of and beyond the time when the shutter closed; while another enduring interest has been the largely deserted urban vistas that he describes as “Unconscious Places”.
More recently Struth has been photographing the world’s forests and jungles in his wryly titled “New Pictures from Paradise”, while at the opposite end of the nature-culture spectrum, his latest images depict industrial complexes and research centres across the globe, capturing the nerve centres of the latest in cutting edge technology. Struth’s work goes on show at the Whitechapel Gallery, London from 6 July until 16 September.
The Art Newspaper: It is interesting that the first exhibition of your portraits was held in an academy for psychoanalysis: a sense of the psychological and the subconscious—whether of the subject or the viewer—seems to be an enduring concern.
Thomas Struth: I believe that photographs, movies and psychology have an interesting connection historically. The 20th century was the first time psychology was explicitly acknowledged as part of human existence and a connection between psychology and the distribution of mechanical images, which are recorded gazes and observations, appeared hand in hand. On top of that human beings are unavoidably herd animals; we are not all Robinson Crusoes and that’s why group dynamic and group psychology is such an important thing. The camera doesn’t do anything by itself—photographs show what people look at and reveal their inner agenda.
You even used the term “Unconscious Places” to describe your photographs of deserted cityscapes of the 1970s and 1980s.
I wanted this to be the title of my first big exhibition at the Kunsthalle Berne [in 1987] because I wanted to highlight that this work was not so much about architectural styles or urban history but about what communities created beyond individual responsibilities of architects and financiers, building laws and stuff like that. It was more about the influence of our unconsciousness on the creation of public space and that we are also exposed to it while we live in a city. For the post-war generation it was especially fitting to consider the responsibility of the individual versus the responsibility of what society does as a community or a totality.
Can you talk a little about the effect of growing up in post-war Germany?
I remember going to elementary school in the early 1960s, where there was generally an over-strict atmosphere. Some teachers would beat students with a stick if they hadn’t done their homework. An echo of violence, disappointment and guilt was sealed into the post-war urban environment. Growing up in the early 1960s, the direct destruction was not really visible anymore, but the scattered mixture of remaining pre-war and 1950s buildings, and the gaps of houses, was a clear reminder of the drama that had just happened. I cannot precisely remember at what age I first heard about the Holocaust, but I seem to remember that I always knew about it somehow. It was a very big issue and very shocking. My father was a soldier for nine years and was wounded twice very badly. He was traumatised and he talked about it predominantly in a very personal manner, which was hard for a young person to understand, why he did not express more regret and sorrow for what our country had done. For him it was just a big conflict.
A key trigger seems to have been when you were working in Gerhard Richter’s studio compiling and mounting photographs for a presentation of “Atlas” [an archive of photographs, drawings and other materials Richter collected over 40 years]. You’ve cited this quite mechanical task as an inspiration for your practice.
Yes, when I studied with Gerhard, I worked several times in his studio when he was preparing an exhibition of his “Atlas” at Museum Haus Lange in Krefeld. There were these piles and piles of small amateur photographic prints that he had made of different subjects that were very similar and the subject matter was often rather boring, like icebergs, forests and ordinary fields. It was very interesting, because when you have very similar interpretations of the same subject, it sharpens your gaze, your tool of seeing.
So you were put into the mindset of analysing the visual material rather than just collecting it?
Yes, exactly. Analysing, noting tiny differences and getting fine-tuned for the atmospheric structure. This was especially interesting as the subjects were so unsensational.
You still predominantly work with an analogue camera, why?
First of all, that’s what I’m used to, and I certainly believe that every moment in time and space is always unique. However, three years ago I did start to scan some of the large format negatives, because with some of the new technological subjects, it provided a more precise definition and spatial possibility than a one-shot picture and thus came closer to the impression that I had on location. This only works when there are no figures in the picture. As soon as people are involved, the one unique authentic moment in time remains an important element of the picture.
A kind of alchemy also happens in the moment. Some of your museum photographs are extraordinary in the way that the viewers seem to echo and form unexpected relationships with the pictures they are looking at in terms of their posture, positioning or the colour of their clothes. If I thought they had been Photoshopped it would completely devalue the image and lose its magic.
On one occasion in the 1990s in the Rijksmuseum people were standing in a particular way and I walked up to them and said, “please could you stand like this for a moment?” I made an exposure and when you look at the contact you can already see that these people—even though you can only see their backs—were thinking more about what was behind them, rather than what was in front of them. It’s a very interesting example of what a fine recording tool the camera is.
Your most recent photographs depict laboratories, research centres and industrial complexes worldwide that are working at the cutting edge of technology. The images appear to be about chaos as much as they are about order.
My work in the street is about the larger society, my portraits of the family are about the small primary group, the museum pictures are about historical reflection and a reading of artistic narrative, while the jungle pictures are mainly about the self. To my thinking, the technology pictures are a lot about the brain and about entanglement and this belief in progress and an investment in this slightly hysterical belief in improvement through science and technology. Why is it that people can agree on plasma physics or sending satellites to space for the latest GPS system, but in the social realm we seem to be as incapable as ever? This is a big contradiction. Most of the time these inventions are sold as glitzy, perfect and promising until the first disaster happens. I wanted to take off some of the clothes and show the interior more directly, behind the scenes of some of these places. At the same time I wanted to show them in a manner that makes you understand the fascination for these things.
What did you mean when you said that, “good pictures, like good thoughts, require some distance”?
I need both a spontaneous idea to create new work but also a thematic anchor, which stems from thinking a lot about the conditions that bring me to making these particular pictures. I’m both an observer and a participating world citizen: I’m very interested in politics—a voter of the Green Party in Germany since it was newly formed in 1982—and my role as a picture maker always has a connection to that.
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