photographer study: Thomas Struth
I would like to expand my understanding of photography. The best way to do this, I think, is to study the great photographers of the past and of today to digest why they have been praised and appreciated. What is it behind their technique and their eye that draws people to their images? Why are they studied and collected? Hopefully, this will help me to be better equipped to recognize and appreciate new talent when I see it, which I feel is another tool I need in my tool belt.
One photographer who was mentioned in a blog post of Franca Sozzani, editor of Vogue Italia and applauded talent ambassador, was Thomas Struth. So, I am going to begin with him!
Thomas Struth was born in Germany and studied painting at the Düsseldorf Academy under Peter Kleemann and Gerhard Richter before settling on Bernhard Becher’s photography studio. He won a scholarship to work at P.S. 1 in New York in 1978. His early works consisted of black-and-white shots of streets in Japan, Europe and America. Skyscrapers were another feature of his work, with many of his photographs attempting to show the relationship people have with their modern-day environment.
In the 80′s Struth began to photograph family portraits after a meeting with psychoanalyst Ingo Hartmann, which added a new element to his collection. These works attempt to show the underlying social dynamics within a seemingly still photograph. I found an interesting interview of Struth where he explains his progression and inspiration behind his subjects:
Well first of all, in terms of an artistic practice, I can clearly only comment on something that exists, or that I encounter by direct experience. I think that my switch to photography from painting, for example, came about because I realized that I was more interested in working on things that resided out in the world, and were not restricted to my own psychological field. I realized I was more of a social and political person, and that I was more fascinated by analytical processes. It also bears saying that every part of my work reflects the position of a human being who actively takes part in life, which maybe sounds very banal and general to say expressly, but that is nonetheless what I’m interested in.
In the beginning I was also interested in the relationship of the individual to the larger historical time span into which he’s born, and the responsibilities of what might be called one’s heritage. So, for instance, my specific experience at that time entailed an analysis of urban structures in the postwar German landscape, or the result of all that came after the Holocaust at that time, or more specifically, of being a witness to the emblematic structure of postwar German cities.
This led to a curiosity about other places and other patterns of historical heritage, and then more or less by intuition or accident, to looking at another type of structure, that of the family. Those pictures were a starting point for an analysis of the social group, of the way individuals learn about the group dynamic or group activity. Because this family unit is the elementary social structure, it sets part of the patterns for how you behave in life, where you learn your first steps as a social being. Essential to the function of those pictures though is an understanding that they are only emblematic, that in making family portraits I was seeking something like an emblematic platform for a play of thought about something common, that we all share. Even if you look at the narratives of families as different as from, let’s say, Ghana, Finland, Mongolia, or Germany, the fact of a family dynamic built through a history of generations is a shared experience.
I think this quote is the basis behind why his photography is so fascinating and captivating. You can see the relationship dynamic in all of his photographs whether it be a nature image, an architectural image or a family portrait. His images somehow capture the relationship between the individual and their surroundings – buildings in Manhattan, flowers in a forest, the youngest son in his family, etc. It is something we all can relate to as well, which I feel connects his photography to his audience. I think he sums up his purpose in his art very clearly here:
You release your detailed vision of, for instance, your partner, or your wife, or your assistant, of all the things you constantly do, of the media, the war in Iraq, the explosions in Baghdad, and the Japanese minister who offends women’s roles by saying that they’re all birth machines, of all these kinds of everyday things. You come to a certain distance for a moment, and perhaps you can try to see the basic struggle of being human. It can sound very kitschy, but there is the attempt to see the whole picture in some way.