Photography | Isolating Thomas Struth

Tokamak Asdex Upgrade Periphery,
Max Planck IPP, Garching 2009
Chromogenic print

Thomas Struth. Nature & Politics
Berlin | Germany
11 June > 18 September 2016

Aquarium, Atlanta 2013
Chromogenic print

Surprisingly, German photographer Thomas Struth, who is based in Berlin and is – according to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has an unparalleled collection of his work – ‘one of the most important and influential photographers of the last half-century’ hasn’t had a retrospective in the city since 2004.

Having first studied art under Gerhard Richter, then photography under Bernd and Hilla Becher from 1973 to 1980, Struth (b 1954) won a scholarship to New York, where he would produce Streets of New York City, a series of intense, deserted panoramas, that earned him his first solo exhibition there, at MoMA PS1, in 1978.

Catapulted to success, retrospective exhibitions of his work began early in his career –Kunsthalle Bern (1987), Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston (1994), Carré d’Art, Musée d’Art Contemporain, Nîmes (1998), Dallas Museum of Art (2002), Museo de Art de Lima (2005) – and in 2011 London’s Whitechapel Gallery presented Thomas Struth: Photographs 1978 – 2010.

Basilica of the Annunciation,
Nazareth 2014

Inkjet print

Ride, Anaheim 2013
Chromogenic print

Research Vehicle,
Armstrong Flight
Research Center,
Edwards 2014

Inkjet print

But blockbuster retrospectives – as fashionable as they have become – while useful as reminders of the range and chronology of an artist’s development, can be overwhelming affairs that render the viewer, who can at best expect to be left with only an overview, grappling with a surfeit of competing concepts, each vying for their attention, confused and dissatisfied.

Perhaps by not being seen in isolation the work, too, sometimes suffers. Struth’s photographs may appear disarmingly matter-of-fact, but the thought processes behind them is deep and philosophical. Museum Photographs (1989 > 1992) – a large-scale colour series, consisting of voyeuristic observations of crowds of visitors, which reveals how historic paintings exhibited in famous museums are experienced today, requires time and space to be fully appreciated. It can be displayed alongside his earlier black-and-white portraits of individuals and almost unbearably frank depictions of family groups, or with his serene, unpopulated New Pictures from Paradise jungle images of the 1990s, but each of these also deserves proper consideration.

Although it’s only a matter of time before a major retrospective of Struth’s work is shown there, perhaps, for the moment, Berlin is getting it right.

Thomas Struth. Nature & Politics – the photographer’s first exhibition at Martin-Gropius-Bau – is not a retrospective, but a carefully composed survey of just 37 large-format photographs of work from the years 2005 to 2016. It homes in on the photographer’s more recent and ongoing preoccupation with the creation of images of the highly complex apparatus, structures and constructions that humankind is able to imagine and build that shape our everyday, contemporary, existence.

All images by and © Thomas Struth, courtesy Martin-Gropius-Bau

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