Author: Thomas Struth
Publisher: The Monacelli Press
Review by Conrad J. Obregon
Most thoughtful photographers know that the very act of putting a frame around the world when they capture an image is part of the process of conveying one’s vision. As I read Thomas Struth: Photographs 1978-2010 I began to wonder if hanging a photograph on a gallery wall or including it in a book can also help in the realization of the vision.
Struth is one of the princes of modern art photography crowned by the world’s art critics. His work includes four main oeuvres: city-scapes; family portraits; images of crowds gathered in museums and places of worship displaying art; and jungles and forests. His early work was mainly in black-and-white, but his later work is in color. This book includes excellent reproductions of his most important work. The book also includes essays by experts and a chronology of his work with thumbnails of his images organized by subjects together with biographical material and the artist’s comments on his own work.
The prevalent technique that the photographer uses is central composition, most noticeable in the city-scapes where he often photographed down the middle of the street towards a vanishing point, and in the forest pictures where the image crawls around the entire screen. He seems to shoot in circumstances when the light is diffuse, as on an overcast day, and he specializes in the deep focus that renders the contents of the picture sharp regardless of distance from the lens. He rarely uses any of the techniques that photographers traditionally use to direct our attention to a subject. Instead he forces us to examine the details of the image. The viewer must do his or her part in engaging these photographs.
The pictures are certainly interesting, particularly the museum photographs, especially those featuring crowds of viewers looking up at something, like, as one critic has suggested, Michelangelo’s David in Florence. Still, I did not see what distinguished these images from others taken by skilled photographers in similar venues or how the particulars of Struth’s style explicated the content. I had hoped the essays would clarify this but most of the discussions seemed more about the essayist’s speculations that derived from the content of the photographs that might equally apply to another competent photographer’s work. (I thought one of the essays so full of florid prose that it appeared the authors were more interested in being clever than expository.)
It was the chronology, based in part on interviews with Struth, that finally revealed what Struth’s vision was in creating the pictures. For example, in his city pictures, he indicates that he is trying to show how the way that people build their urban areas shapes the organization of their society. Unfortunately, I am enough of a traditionalist to believe that the image should stand alone and allow us to share the denotations and connotations of the artist so that we share his vision. I could not guess his intent from the images alone. I know that others believe that intent is important to the question of the value of a piece as art but that really is too big a question for a review, although raising this subject in the minds of the reader may add to the value of the book.
Struth is amongst the 25 top photographers of the modern, non-traditional art photography world. Anyone hoping to engage this world must deal with his photographs. This book does an excellent job of presenting his work. It did a less than perfect job of defending it.
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