Thomas Struth

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN looking and seeing—between mere perception of surfaces and an understanding of their meanings—is a division that photographic art is especially disposed to explore. Photographers have long pressed against their art’s presumed documentary function, creating a subjective sense of the seen by applying the tools of their craft. This persona-driven approach was challenged by Bernd and Hilla Becher, founders of the Düsseldorf School of Photography, whose students included Thomas Ruff, Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, and Thomas Struth. Known for their typological studies of industrial structures, the Bechers declined to pursue the “decisive moment” and instead sought clarity and near-scientific objectivity.

By producing ordered sets of similar pictures that reveal the subtlest differences and congruities, Struth has proved his fealty to that aesthetic. But Thomas Struth, a comprehensive account of more than forty years of work, also charts an ongoing revision of the Bechers’ ideas. As the black-and-white images of urban scenes in New York and Europe give way to more-recent color-rich portraits of families and of crowds in museums, Struth complicates the typological impulse. The city photos are mostly devoid of people and often shot from the middle of a long street toward a single, distant point of perspective. By eschewing human incident and social detail, these rigorously symmetrical compositions direct attention to intersecting vertical and horizontal lines (building columns, signage, sidewalks); Dey Street, Financial District, New York, 1978, could be a surveyor’s evidence for zoning purposes. As such, these streetscapes invite a double take: The matter-of-fact surface that initially resists close reading and thematic resonance is a cunning feint, one that causes the viewer to question assumptions about what merits attention.

Thomas Struth, Louvre 4, 1989, C-print, 70 5/8 × 84".
Thomas Struth, Louvre 4, 1989, C-print, 70 5/8 × 84".

Struth’s numerous depictions of museumgoers in Venice, Paris, Chicago, and elsewhere dramatize this notion explicitly. In Louvre 4, 1989 (above), Théodore Géricault’s massive The Raft of the Medusa occupies the center of Struth’s frame while several visitors assemble—left to right, from crowd to solitary figure—in a way that echoes the bodies on the raft, even as the group’s placid demeanor contrasts sharply with the agonized commotion rendered by the painter. We can’t see the faces of those in the audience, but much can be gleaned about the interaction between them and the art: The head of the woman on the far right casts upward to examine the apex of the composition; next to her, a man bends to peruse a guidebook or adjust a camera; the woman in a blue coat focuses on a corner of the painting; and the casual posture—hands in pocket—of the gray-jacketed man next to her connotes emotional distance from the death and dying. Struth knows that we will be drawn to our fellow spectators; we share with them a remote vantage on the frightful scene and easily identify with the visually sated lot of the museum attendee. We see ourselves, in the photo, not seeing.

Albert Mobilio