Thomas Struth

Galerie Max Hetzler

When photographed by Thomas Struth, sunflowers, yarrow, mallow, lilies, and delphinium express something very strange. In lieu of traditional interpretations of the flower—the rose as equivalent to love or the blood of Christ, the tulip as symbol of inflexibility, and the violet as evocative of youth and modesty—Struth’s flower photographs realistically capture the generative growth cycle of a plant. Unlike Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs of flowers, these are never sexualized, rather, they seem undisturbed, peaceful, modest. Wherein, then, lies their attraction?

One could speculate that it lies in their therapeutic value, since they were all commissioned by a hospital in Winterthur, Switzerland for 32 patient rooms. Struth decided to photograph landscapes or flowers and plants that function as a unity. Oddly enough, except for those of the flowers and plants, his photographs were very popular with the patients. Therefore, their appeal cannot be mainly therapeutic. On the contrary, it stems from the photograph itself: primarily from its form and style, rhythm, and composition, all of which transcend simple ideological, sociological, or philosophical interpretations. Certainly, as the “photographer of the built world” as the revealer of “unconscious places” (according to Ulrich Loock), Struth always had a key to reality in his earlier works. But somehow, it never got beyond this—his work remained a real, experiential model.

These flower photographs. however, engender a multiplicity of reflections on the part of the viewer. Beginning with the discovery of an order in the artwork, the artist liberates the flower from a dependent existence. In principle, every flower photograph is a portrait. Just like human beings, each flower possesses different characteristics, but individuation for a flower is naturally determined rather than a question of free will. However, one could conclude, both plants and humans share the reality of an existence limited by time and space. The true attraction of these photographs lies in their simple beauty and in their clarity.

Norbert Messler

Translated from the German by Charles V. Miller.