interview by SVEN SCHUMANN
studio portrait in Berlin by MAXIME BALLESTEROS
Thomas Struth studied painting under Gerhard Richter until he switched classes to become one of the very first students of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s famed photogra- phy school at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in Germany. With his large-scale, highly constructed, and carefully framed photo series of deserted cityscapes, verdant jungles, families, and museum visitors, Struth quickly became one of the most sought-after fine art photographers of our time.
In this conversation in his Berlin studio, he discusses the virtue of silence, the instability of memory, the curse of visibility, and how to view art.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Art museums are a booming industry because of the growth in tourism.
THOMAS STRUTH — The Museum of Modern Art has more visitors than ever. The Metropolitan Museum has millions of visitors every year. In the late ’80s the museum became a different kind of institu- tion. The Louvre in the ’80s was also full, but it was maybe one mil- lion visitors a year, and now you have 10 million. You can say, on the one hand, it’s an exciting situ- ation because more people want to look at art, but at the same time it’s a loss. You almost can’t look at anything anymore because you’re always disturbed. The MoMA, for example, will have another expan- sion to enlarge its square footage. The last one already turned the museum into something more cor- porate, where people can come in, go up the stairs, and then they land in an atrium, and then they go up the escalators to the temporary exhi- bitions, which are on the sixth floor. By the time you arrive on the sixth floor, you’ve seen so much human theater, so many faces and families and siblings and grandmothers and babies, that when you stand in front of the first artwork you’re already exhausted. And you already want to have a cappuccino or a soup…
SVEN SCHUMANN — Of course, because a lot of art is not intended to be viewed in a noisy environment.
THOMAS STRUTH — Approaching an artwork in bad circumstances is almost like you’re in the jungle and you need a machete to cut the trail free to even have space to listen to what the art is, to find out the rea- soning that might have provoked the artist to do what they did. When you look at a Matisse or a Bruce Nauman or a Joseph Beuys or a Thomas Demand — or my work — it needs a kind of silence to be undisturbed, to consider the different aspects, and to weigh them against each other.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Is it disappointing for you when people don’t see in your art what you put into it?
THOMAS STRUTH — Yeah, it can be very unpleasant. So if I make pho- tographs of the jungle, you see a jungle. And that’s enough for a lot of people. The reference is clear; you know what it’s a photograph of. Some people are able to trace the underlying agenda and some people just don’t see it.
SVEN SCHUMANN — And some people don’t want to see it.
THOMAS STRUTH — Yeah, some people don’t want to see it. So in a way it’s a good point that it divides the audience into the seers and the non-seers! [Laughs] Sometimes it makes you upset, but what can you do?
SVEN SCHUMANN — Are people too passive these days when looking at art?
THOMAS STRUTH — I think that people who go to a museum have the idea, “Okay, in the museum you can see artworks that people have agreed are important, good, and meaningful artworks.” Whereas when you go to a gallery, it’s a gamble.
SVEN SCHUMANN — True. In a museum the decision whether some- thing is good or not has kind of been made for them.
THOMAS STRUTH — I also think that the contemporary art museums or the modern art museums have a problem keeping up with the rapidly increasing number of artists and the growth of artistic production all over the world. Who sets the stan- dards now? It’s very difficult. So at least when people go to the Louvre or a museum like that, there’s a tendency to think, “Okay, that’s historically proven.” At least for the time being or the next 100 years, it means something.
SVEN SCHUMANN — When you go to a museum yourself, how do you look at art?
THOMAS STRUTH — I don’t go piece- by-piece. So what I do is mostly just walk past a lot of art that doesn’t interest me because either I’ve seen it already or I know the work of the artist well, then I try to notice what really magnetizes me or makes me wonder or surprises me because I’ve not seen it.
SVEN SCHUMANN — What was the last museum that surprised you? THOMAS STRUTH — Recently, I was in Honolulu because my wife was born in Hawaii, and there’s a modern art museum that has quite a small collection. It’s in a Spanish colo- nial house with an extremely well- composed installation, and I found it really fantastic — and there were very few visitors! [Laughs] So it was a super-enjoyable visit.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Speaking of visiting museums, you have done two very successful photo series of people looking at art in some of the world’s most famous museums. What initially interested you in that concept?
THOMAS STRUTH — When I was young,Iusedtogoalottotheold Museum Ludwig in Cologne. It was still in the ’50s building by Rudolf Schwarz, next to the WDR, the German television station. It was a very bland ’50s building, very beau- tifully designed, and since there were not very many people, you were confronted with the artwork. And the collection was so interest- ing at the time. There was medieval painting, an asparagus still life by Monet, and Pop Art, which at that time was very recent. Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg, George Segal, Morris Louis, Joseph Beuys, works by Andy Warhol… It was very stimulating for a teenager. But there weren’t so many people. Then, in the late ’80s, the museum became a dif- ferent kind of institution and more like a train station full of masses of people. So that’s the starting point for that work. The basis of every activity that you can have as an artist is your own experience, something that you might find worth examining further because it’s unclear. I started to photograph in museums around 1989. Then later on my Audience photographs came more from the question: “If I were the painting, and I would see all these people looking at me, what would I see in a close-up?”
SVEN SCHUMANN — What did you notice about the audiences in museums?
THOMAS STRUTH — Many artworks express shamelessness — they’re just up front, they’re daring, they’re risky, they’re proud — and when you’re confronted with these self- expressions you might feel, “I’m not confident,” or “I feel limited,” or you might think that you know less than your neighbor. Some people are uncertain and don’t know what they should feel, or they feel provoked.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Was there an artwork in particular that triggered your reaction?
THOMAS STRUTH — I was surprised when I photographed people look- ing at the small Leonardo da Vinci painting, Madonna and Child, in the State Hermitage Museum, in St. Petersburg. I photographed for maybe six hours or so, and I think there was only one woman the entire time who walked up toward the painting and had a broad smile on her face that was evoked by the painting. I thought, “Wow, that’s what you want.” You don’t want to be scared. You don’t want to feel insufficient or some- thing like that. So that was very memorable. I think the Leonardo scares people; they almost have expressions of pain in their face because they don’t know how to deal with it.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Were you visible to the people while you were taking these pictures in the museums?
THOMAS STRUTH — I was visible, yeah.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Ryan McGinley told me that the reason he stopped documenting New York nightlife was because people started recognizing him, and it ruined the pictures. Did it become difficult to shoot people because they recognized you?
THOMAS STRUTH — Not exactly. It developed to the point where I photographed at the Museo del Prado in Madrid, which I had wanted to do for a long time. So I went there, and I knew that it would be the last museum that I would photograph in. But as I was shooting there, some people came up to me and said, “Are you German?” And I said yes, and they said, “Are you Thomas Struth?” So I thought, “Shit, this is it.” [Laughs] So it fell together like that.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Music also played a big part in the changes that were happening in society at that time.
THOMAS STRUTH — I was totally involved in music. When I was 10, my mother decided that a kid should learn an instrument. My sister learned piano; my brother learned violin; I started to learn the clari- net and later the saxophone. I was a very big jazz fan for a very long time, and I still am, even though what’s done today is not so inter- esting. But I also loved pop music: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who. When I was 14, I saw The Who live in Eastbourne, in Great Britain, when I was there on school vacation. I always played in bands. When I was 13, I played saxophone in a band for the first time and continued until I was 21. In the ’80s I played the drums in a band in Düsseldorf for six years.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Did you ever consider making music professionally?
THOMAS STRUTH — I always liked to make music with other people, but unfortunately I could never practice by myself. With art it was different; it somehow just came out naturally. When I was painting and drawing I had endless patience, and I could just go on forever. Same when I work in the darkroom — I love being there by myself.
SVEN SCHUMANN — You once said to The Guardian that your impulse for a photo comes from the urge to talk about things that fascinate or bother you. Looking at your body of work, which series were about fascination and which about frustration?
THOMAS STRUTH — Most of the time it’s a mixture of these elements. I think that the street pictures are something fascinating, but for the most part, especially in postwar Germany, it’s kind of bothersome. Berlin, when you look at it, it’s quite an ugly city. But it’s an expression of pain and ignorance. I mean, look out the window — we are by the river, and most of the buildings right by it look terrible.
SVEN SCHUMANN — You don’t like the architecture in Berlin?
THOMAS STRUTH — It looks cheap, careless, and arrogant. People forget that that’s why I called these pictures Unconscious Places because buildings are also an expression of human character. You look at a building, to me it’s like looking at an actor or an actress in a movie or on stage.
SVEN SCHUMANN — What about your series of family portraits? For decades you have taken photos of families around the world, a fairly conventional genre for a fine art photographer like yourself.
THOMAS STRUTH — They are also a mixture of fascination and frustration. I have love and empathy for the inevitability of family. The parents don’t know how the kids will come out, and the kids certainly didn’t choose their parents. Who your par- ents are, when and where you were born: these are three gifts that you have no influence over. There are different solutions for how people deal with this and what comes out of it, and it’s touching. There has been a big shift in identity construc- tion — people adopting children, people having children through IVF, gay couples having children through IVF or with donors. Today it’s very different.
SVEN SCHUMANN — You can almost construct your family the way you want.
THOMAS STRUTH — Yes, but the kids still don’t get to decide. That’s like the first stage of the dynamic where people learn how to deal with other people.
SVEN SCHUMANN — What makes your family portraits different from those of a conventional portrait photographer’s?
THOMAS STRUTH — I picked it up from a different perspective, from a different intention. It all has to do with the question: “Can a pho- tograph tell a story?” Which is the question: “Do I see the story?” If I don’t see the story, I cannot make a picture because I don’t know when it matters, when it is the correct moment, or when I see something that I believe is true for that family. On one or two occasions when I didn’t have a single negative from a session because somebody moved or had their eyes closed, I thought maybe I should take two people from that negative, one from another one, but it’s impossible because you immediately see that it’s a nonexistent moment. That moment never existed; it cannot exist. And that’s a strange thing about photography.
SVEN SCHUMANN — I saw your last exhibition at the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York. Several of the pictures depict panoramic views of Disneyland, an iconic place of imagi- nation, and another group of works investigates often unseen sites of technology, science, and industry from our contemporary reality, like ship and oil rig building, space shut- tle repair, and research and medi- cal facilities. Was that series about fascination?
THOMAS STRUTH — Yes, that’s the latest dimension of thinking about a theme that fascinates me. It is about a pictorial imagination, thou- ghts and pictures that manifest themselves in the brain, in people’s imagination. We’re at a moment now where lots of things that influence us — things that have to do with the Internet and travel and things like that — aren’t really visible. I still find it really amazing that you can Google something, and within a mil- lisecond a list of choices is offered to you, and you don’t understand why. Who really knows where that comes from? Or has even seen the facility making that happen?
SVEN SCHUMANN — One of your photos shows a prostate operation performed by a remote-controlled robot.
THOMAS STRUTH — Yeah, it’s a photograph of a prostate operation performed with a da Vinci remote surgery robot. The surgeon sits with two joystick-like things between his fingers, and he looks through a view-finder. The patient gets these tubes inserted with a light and a camera and two tubes for the scissors, and one is a vacuum cleaner.
SVEN SCHUMANN — In science-fiction stories, mankind’s techno- logical evolution often results in an ultimate battle between man and machine. Do you think we will ever get there?
THOMAS STRUTH — I made a picture in Atlanta of this garage scene with a robot. The people work there with the fantasy that in 30 years all people will have a small humanoid robot that will accompany them to the supermarket and help them shop, or go and shop for them.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Or clean your atelier.
THOMAS STRUTH — We actually already have a vacuum robot that goes through the apartment.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Your photos are presented in very large format, with utmost clarity, a stark contrast to the way we actually remember or imagine these places. Eyesight blurs at the edges, and we see fewer details at once. Is this something you are exploring in these photos?
THOMAS STRUTH — Yes.
SVEN SCHUMANN — I feel like Disneyland, especially, is more powerful in our imagination or memory than in reality.
THOMAS STRUTH — It’s about idealization. As you said, certain details melt away, and you get a vaguer pic- ture. It’s the instability of memory. Often we’re completely convinced that this person, street, or building looked exactly like we remember, but when we come back, the windows are smaller.
SVEN SCHUMANN — What was it like to shoot at Disneyland?
THOMAS STRUTH — I was there for five days. It was kind of absurd to be in such a place in order to make silent, still pictures, mostly without people. It was very bizarre.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Is it important for you to do something that hasn’t been done before?
THOMAS STRUTH — The main thing for me is to bring into the picture the emotional or political qualities that I find fascinating and problematic. I’d like to think that I can add something pictorially to a represen- tation and show it in a large still photograph.
[Table of contents]
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