Why would you want to look at art about looking at art? Nigel Warburton investigates the subtle photography of Thomas Struthby Nigel Warburton / July 20, 2011 / Leave a comment
“Pantheon” by Thomas Struth (1990). His work examines parallels between the sanctification of art and the secularisation of religious spaces
Thomas Struth: Photographs 1978-2010 Whitechapel Gallery, 6th July to 16th September
In the foreground tourists in shorts, their sunglasses pushed back on their heads, stare up at something out of sight, above the camera. Behind them a woman and younger man are engaged in conversation; nearby a young woman looks up enraptured, ignoring whatever her boyfriend is telling her. Meanwhile, a red-haired woman with a shoulder bag stares into the lens, a knowing smile on her face. Other gallery goers are moving on to the next room, or looking at something out of the frame.
This photograph, “Audience 1,” taken from the base of Michaelangelo’s David in Florence’s Galleria dell’Accademia in 2004, is on show at the Whitechapel Gallery until mid September, in a major retrospective that brings together three decades of Thomas Struth’s art. Struth is from a remarkable stable of contemporary German photographers that includes Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, and Thomas Ruff, collectively known as the Düsseldorf School, all of whom have exploited photography’s documentary potential, while also creating highly artistic large-scale colour images designed for display in galleries.
Struth, who was born in 1954, studied painting with Gerhard Richter before switching to Bernd and Hilla Becher’s photography course at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. The Bechers are renowned for their relentless—some would say tedious—impersonal recording of industrial architecture: water coolers, gasworks, grain elevators and the like, often presented in grids. Their influence on Struth seems apparent in his early street scenes: like the Bechers, his persistent use of a central perspective point produces variations on a theme, making the banal begin to appear interesting. Surprisingly Struth had begun his city sequence before encountering the Bechers’ work. It was the Bechers, though, who encouraged him to experiment with larger format cameras—a significant feature of his style that allows enlargement without loss of detail and the creation of huge colour prints, some of which are nearly 4 metres wide.
In the late 1980s, shifting from street to museum photographs, Struth began to make a significant impact on the art world. After living in both Rome and Naples, he became intrigued by quasi-religious attitudes to art and by secular attitudes to religious spaces. Struth explored these related themes in acutely observed shots of gallery visitors in front of iconic paintings, and in…