Thomas Struth: Photographs, a small exhibition currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, presents a sampling of its subject’s modes: his well-known Museum Photographs, portraits, architectural photographs, and large color works. Taken as a whole like this, Struth’s photographs appear completely focused on geometry and lacking in movement, emotion, and flair. A deeper impression of his body of work is diminished by the survey nature of the exhibition, which presents just a few examples of each style, and by the choice to place pieces according to an inscrutable curatorial logic, neither chronologically nor thematically. The Museum Photographs series suffers particularly, appearing less humanistic when placed adjacent to Struth’s extremely geometrical architectural pictures.
Struth’s work, while not entirely cold, is essentially lonely. The Streets of New York (1978), comprised of 12 black-and-white prints, is a series of brutally repetitive shots of roads; Struth centers the empty space, and buildings act as additional frames on either side. These New York City streets are almost entirely devoid of warm bodies, the presence of humanity only alluded to by cars. The exhibition text cites the influence of Struth’s professors Bernd and Hilla Becher, and indeed, purely formally, one can see their impact in terms of geometry; however, the Bechers mostly photographed architecture as objects, in a way that precludes the expectation of bodies. In contrast, the lack of people in Struth’s New York City is unexpected and lonely.
Unfortunately, the show’s wall texts do not, on the whole, offer specific enough explications to foreground a humanistic interpretation. For example, the text for “Pantheon, Rome” (1990), one of the Museum Photographs, offers the following logic: “The viewer become self-reflexively aware of one’s own act of looking, and this relationship becomes a viable model for actively reshaping one’s own relationship to the seemingly intractable problems of the present moment.” The same could be said of much photography; this explanation doesn’t allude to the unique feeling of monumental loneliness that Struth’s pictures conjure.
Struth’s eye may be most interesting when trained on living subjects. “Figure 2, Charité, Berlin” (2013) shows an anesthetized woman lying on an operating table. She’s attached to a seemingly endless number of sensors and wires — geometry and technology feel threatening, the subject’s humanity completely overpowered. And in “Paradise 13, Yakushima, Japan” (1999), a forest’s bewildering tangle of foliage is captured by Struth’s centered, calm lens, a moving example of how a photograph can silence the messiness of life.
Photographs includes works that expressly demonstrate Struth’s facility with color. The infinite variations of blues, greens, and grays in “Hot Rolling Mill, ThyssenKrupp Steel, Duisburg” (2010) are illuminated by a few, delicately captured light sources. In “Tien An Men, Beijing” (1997), the red of Communist China is offset by multiple muted shades of gray that seem appropriate to the historical tragedy of the setting.
The exhibition provides a good basic introduction to Struth. But it would have been more insightful with a thematic arrangement of the works and wall texts that interpret his photographs, which feel so easily aloof, in novel ways.
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