Struth Be Told

Andrew Hultkrans on Thomas Struth at Live from the NYPL

Paul Holdengräber and Thomas Struth talking at the New York Public Library. (Photo: Jori Klein)

LIKE KRAFTWERK, those other celebrated sons of 1970s Düsseldorf, Thomas Struth embodies remote, dispassionate stillness. From his rigorously symmetrical street scenes, often devoid of people or motion, to his striking, clinical family portraits, Struth’s photography seems to capture architecture and bodies suspended in solid air, as if his subjects were frozen in the invisible aspic of the negative space surrounding them. All photographs are “stills,” of course, but Struth’s are stiller than most. Often large-scale and taken from great distances, his pictures efface the artist’s subjectivity—his eye/I is nowhere and everywhere—while maintaining a classical painter’s sense of composition. He began as a painter, studying under Gerhard Richter at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, and then, as his interests turned to photography, Bernd and Hilla Becher. As with many visual geniuses, talking about his work does not come naturally to him.

The season closer at this fall’s Live from the NYPL, Struth was amiable and refreshingly humble during his somewhat rambling interview with Paul Holdengräber, but the audience came away with only a scattershot sense of the artist’s life and thoughts. He loves music, we learned, as a riff on seeing a Who concert in 1969 segued into a discussion of his lifelong passion for jazz. As a teenager he would record the radio shows of German jazz evangelist Joachim-Ernst Berendt and try to replicate the tunes on his saxophone. Music influenced how he thought of “organizing time” in his own work (though it could hardly be less jazz-like). It is a “great partner in life,” offering “solace, peace, and intellectual stimulation,” he said. Holdengräber recalled William Claxton’s perhaps self-justifying quote that “photography is jazz for the eye.”

Holdengräber showed a slide of one of Struth’s “museum photographs” (photos of artworks and their spectators in museum settings) titled Self-Portrait. The photo depicts Albrecht Dürer’s Self-Portrait at 28, 1500, hanging on the wall of a German museum, with Struth’s back partially visible in the right side of the frame as he stares at the painting. Struth said the piece, which has a typical, Magritte-like stillness, “combined photography, painting, and film.” Pressed on the meaning of the photograph’s distanced perspective (camera looking at artist looking at art), Struth compared it to his own divided attention while speaking to Holdengräber: “I’m looking at you, but I’m thinking about them [the audience].” When shooting his family portraits, he continued, he thinks about how his subjects’ perspectives change from moment to moment.

Struth’s portrait of Richter’s family, commissioned by the painter for a 2002 New York Times Magazine profile, appeared on the screen. Referencing the Dürer self-portrait, which shows the artist’s left hand clutching his fur collar in a mannered fashion, Holdengräber noted the importance of hands—often held in strange ways or in or on unexpected places—in Struth’s portraits. The Richter family portrait is no exception. Seven out of eight hands are visible, all touching or holding someone or something in fairly unnatural ways; there’s little doubt that Struth told the Richters exactly how to position their hands. Struth referred to himself as a “group dynamic specialist” who “thinks like an analyst” when setting up a family portrait.

Turning to the artist’s own family, Holdengräber reminded Struth that he once said that images have a moral component, and brought up Struth’s father’s photo album from World War II, when the elder Struth was a soldier in the Nazi Wehrmacht. The photos showed his father in various wartime scenes in France and Russia and were a great source of repulsion-fascination for the young Struth, sowing the seeds that would lead him to become a photographer. Struth described them as “not banal, but not sensational either.” His father could never bring himself to apologize for Nazism—a perennial point of conflict between father and son. Struth noted the irony that his father did not look “Aryan” but was instead described as resembling an Arabian prince. “Photographs tell something,” Struth said. “The statement ‘photography is lies’ is uninteresting; the question is, ‘What can photographs show?’ ”

As an early street photograph of Düsseldorf in the 1970s appeared, Struth compared it to “open heart surgery,” revealing “a city that’s embarrassed of its past.” He drily described another empty, desolate Düsseldorf street photo as “not a musical.” Discussing a similarly bleak 1978 picture of Crosby Street in SoHo, Struth said he found New York at the time “totally overwhelming; I could hardly speak.” He did note, however, that New Yorkers were much more helpful when he set up his street shots, German passersby having always inquired as to whether he had permission to do what he was doing.

Holdengräber showed Struth’s widely seen 2011 portrait of Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh, commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery in honor of her Diamond Jubilee. Calling it “an unusual commission,” Struth said that he did not immediately accept it, as he doesn’t usually shoot famous people. He decided to do it for the challenge of “showing them as human beings” (pace Johnny Rotten). Struth insisted on selecting the dress the Queen would wear, which led Holdengräber to interject that he’d heard that Struth had noticed the Queen had large breasts and wanted to dress her accordingly (which Struth denied). Struth admitted that he did reposition a pillow behind the Queen’s back, and that when he asked the Duke of Edinburgh to move his left hand, he replied, “I already did.”

Discussing a photograph that was not part of the presentation but is currently hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a major Struth retrospective (open through February 16, 2015), Holdengräber described a picture of a woman in an operating room, about to undergo brain surgery. Struth said it was a rare subject for him, as he is not a “war photographer” and “doesn’t do pain.” He characterized the sophisticated medical technology in the room as “technology of hope.” Averse to charges that he is exploiting the pain of others in such pictures, Struth didn’t want to show the photograph in a gallery or at the NYPL, but he felt it was OK to show it at the Met where “it is not viewed as a product.”

So, not exactly Werner Herzog (or Susan Sontag, for that matter). But then, who is? Struth comes off as neither banal nor sensational—just an ordinary German with an extraordinary visual gift. If he gave Damien Hirst (and many others) some pointers on artist comportment, the world would be a better place.