Before hearing of this show at the Whitechapel Gallery, I hadn’t come across much work of Thomas Struth. This is the first major UK retrospective from ‘one of the most important photographers of the second half of the 20th century’. (That quote is from memory; they more likely used the term ‘photographic artist’ instead of ‘photographer’). It appears to serve as an excellent introduction for us uninitiated, and as I have come to expect of the Whitechapel, it is presented extremely well. I am impressed by how they put shows together here; they make excellent use of the various rooms and spaces, and the lighting and presentation is first rate.
I can’t decide whether the use of two large ‘Audience’ photographs – large prints of groups of tourists staring at an out-of-frame David – as an in-your-face introduction is appropriate or just a little too knowing. Here we see photographs ‘showing the awe that art inspires on peoples faces’, as if we were being reminded to buck up and show some of that awe ourselves. The other non-frontal shots of gallery dwellers are fine, but photography has produced such witty 35mm B&W shots from such locations (think of Erwitt, who else) that large format colour shots are always going to struggle to keep up, in my book.
It’s the large scale works from this show that seem to be getting the most attention, but they weren’t my favourites. Some of the images are huge, even my modern standards. The largest in terms of area, of a ‘Semi-Submerged Rig’, measures approximately 2.8m x 3.5m. That is a great shot that makes use of the scale to immerse the viewer in the neck-busting perspective-laden composition, but some others I feel would work just as well at half the size. One wonders if quality has suffered for the sake of scale. The shot of ‘El Capitan’ actually looks washed out in the highlights, whilst one of the ‘Gallery’ series seems to plunge into black too readily. Reviewing these works in the catalogue reveals plenty of detail in both shots that was suppressed in the gallery prints, either by accident or design.
I can’t make my mind up over the ‘industrial’ shots. Struth shows us great detail, and there is no denying the images generate a raw fascination (seeing the wide abstracted expanse of the underside of a space shuttle, staring at an impenetrable jungle of wires and tubes feeding an experimental nuclear fusion reactor), but the images lack focal points, and the lasting impression is that the subject of the photos is purely chaotic detail rather than man’s ability to create and control the complex.
Talking of impenetrable jungles, the room where the scale of the images is most effective – essential, in fact – is that displaying the ‘Paradise’ series of dense, untouched vegetation, flora and forestry from around the world. Stepping towards these images one almost feels the coolness of natural shades, the shielding from tropical heats. This may sound rather damning, but they are photos that can almost be enjoyed more with your eyes closed after the first 30 seconds of viewing. By which I mean the impression of place they present is more powerful than any revealing pictorial qualities.
I greatly enjoyed the late-seventies/early-eighties black and white shots from New York, Dusseldorf, and other parts of Europe. Here was the strongest visual nod to the Bechers (whose studio he entered in 1976): a consistent perspective (in this instance – tripod in the middle of the road, wide-angle lens with front rise), precise geometry, cold mathematics, flat lighting, those white-out skies. Moving into the late-eighties, Struth seems to have gained the confidence to explore a greater variety of cityscape compositions as he travelled more widely throughout Europe and Asia. Still there is commonality, a sense he’s challenging his viewers to a game of Where’s Waldo, with often a solitary figure appearing very small in the frame.
These images were always going to do something for me, given my tastes, but I was surprised how much I enjoyed the two series of family portraits, especially the later colour series. They felt honest, engaging and inviting. There is nothing formulaic about them, yet there exists no trickery or specialness either. They genuinely seem to be the result of a simple photographic plan well executed, a triumph of simplicity and of pure character bursting from seemingly restrained poses and compositions. The connections and associations between the family members render the portraits stronger than the sum of their parts.
The entry is not cheap at £8.50 (non-concession), but ask not what price you put on viewing photos for an hour, but what price you put on images subconsciously informing and inspiring you from this point forth. Make a proper trip of it – Koenig books and the cafe are all part of the fun. Unlike the previous Paul Graham show here, I didn’t feel the immediate need to purchase the accompanying catalogue. I do not doubt Struth’s excellence or importance, but this retrospective was, for me, very much an experience rather than a spark to lead me to a new favourite photographer.
Thomas Struth: Photographs 1978-2010 is at The Whitechapel Gallery, London E1, until 16 September 2011.