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Local Time: Thomas Struth in an Interview

“We can’t close our eyes – we keep our eyes open.” Thomas Struth’s quiet photographs of New York intersections from the collection of the Deutsche Bank attest to more than just a fascination he has for the big city. His portraits, interior views, and urban landscapes examine historical and phenomenological connections that address everyday perception. Cheryl Kaplan interviewed Thomas Struth on the occasion of the large exhibition of the photographer’s works.

Thomas Struth is in New York for a few days. His mid-career exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum is coming to a close; the tour first began in Dallas, then travelled to Los Angeles and Chicago. The slowness in Struth's photographs is matched by his personal speed. I meet him at the Information Desk at the Metropolitan. It's Saturday, the crowds move between two video portraits Struth has projected on either side of the Great Hall. While visitors are having their bags inspected, the portraits peer down as if participating in some greater inspection. But it is also the case that no one notices, as though there were a mutual agreement to not notice the huge looming figures that gently command the space as filmic time infiltrates the everyday.

When I approach Struth, he is in mid-conversation with the Swiss documentary filmmaker Juerg Neuenschwander and his wife. Later, Struth will make the trip to DIA Beacon to celebrate DIA's opening; the day before he was finishing a portrait. Before I know it, the four of us are exiting the museum and heading towards Madison Avenue to find coffee.

Struth has a way of making time and history accountable, whether it's through his portraits, his landscapes, museum photographs, street scenes, or real life: Struth is seeing all the time. I had planned to interview him at the intersection of Crosby and Spring Street in SoHo, where he spent so much time photographing in the late 70s after receiving a grant to New York. Photographs like Crosby Street from 1978 seem especially weighted and important, even in a city that is built on disregarding change.

As Benjamin Buchloh stated in a recent talk about Struth at the Met: "A disappearing form of experience is formally accepted in Struth's work." How that disappearance attaches itself to history or seemingly escapes it is at the core of Struth's projects. Having studied with Gerhard Richter and Hilla and Bernd Becher, Struth's understanding of the everyday reaches backwards and forwards through history and then veers precisely off into a world distinctly his own. It can be seen in his portraits of the Bellini expert and art historian Giles Robertson and just as evidently in row upon row of apartment houses Struth has documented. The transparency in Struth's work is delivered with unflinching discretion and unabashed confrontation with reality.

Thomas Struth Interview

Cheryl Kaplan: There's a schism in your photographs where the viewer expects "truth"and  a feeling of the documentary, but that's not what you're doing?

Thomas Struth , Street in Wuhan, 1997, Deutsche Bank Collection
©Thomas Struth, Düsseldorf

Thomas Struth: Why not? Yes, I think it is. Actually, there are several things concerning truth: there's a built environment which is the city; there are certain locations which might function as a resume that contains this essence of the city in an intense way. This analysis or assumption of that essence is what I do. It's a very subjective selection, but on the other hand it's debatable. It's a game of cards. I throw in a card and I try to throw in a joker, whether it's the truth or not.

Thomas Struth, Shanghai street, 1995, Deutsche Bank Collection
©Thomas Struth, Düsseldorf

There is a truth in an urban environment because the buildings are built facts. Cities are also subjective, but stone is stone. They've built the environment as truth because it always exists; yet it almost doesn't exist in the same shape at any given time. There's constant construction, roads are always getting worse, things are always on the move. That's the truth, but there's also the intention of the author or photographer that's also a truth, even though it's not shaped so precisely.

In the street scenes, especially from the 70s, there's a feeling that you are arriving into the photographs, settling into the image.

TS: Yes, that's right. What you're saying is true in the sense that in Dusseldorf, when I started to work with a large-format camera, I took maybe 300 street photographs, but from that big set of pictures, there are only three or four that remain. At the time I showed more pictures at a student exhibition, but shortly afterwards I realized those pictures were more like images, more like the way you write. The analysis of what I do happens in the process - it's a long process.

Thomas Struth, Coenties Slip, New York (Wallstreet) 1978, Deutsche Bank Collection
©Thomas Struth, Düsseldorf

Sometimes narrative feels as if it's the first thing to be eliminated in your work, but if you look carefully, the removal is temporary. The viewer experiences a sensation of something being taken away and then retrofitted back ? There's a physical action that's tied up with the narrative and communicates to the viewer where you're moving forward and coming back, like a dolly shot. You are there, but you're also pulling back. How do you deal with the average viewer's expectation of narrative, plot and development?

The narrative is extremely important. When I'm in a city, I read the environment. I eat the narrative all the time with my eyes and I digest something. The city views have an almost epic quality. It's a place of wide-angle social narrative and it has a lot to do with shared experience.

Thomas Struth, New York, 1978, Deutsche Bank Collection
©Thomas Struth, Düsseldorf

That kind of engagement and disengagement also appears in the Giles Robertson photographs: The Portrait of Giles and Eleanor Robertson, Edinburgh from 1987 and Giles Robertson with Book, Edinburgh from 1987. Something is sealed off from the public at the same time that it's revealed. How does the narrative contribute to social analysis?

Thomas Struth, Giles Robertson (smiling), 1987
Courtesy Thomas Struth and Marian Goodman Gallery

Being in Edinburgh the first time was an outstanding experience for me. First of all, being a German and coming from a generation that grew up with the after-effects of Fascism and the Second World War and the visibility of that, I was often shocked at being in a city that is historically intact, where history is unbroken ( pictures). I've had that experience before in London or Paris or Rome, but when I came to Edinburgh I found not only that the urban environment is unbroken, but also that the Scots have a particular love for their own history. People didn't have to be skilled in their profession to have knowledge about their history. When I met the Robertsons for the first time through one of their sons, I thought I was entering a fairy tale of the historical sort. I thought these people looked like they lived in the 17th century. Of course they weren't - I was very intrigued to make a portrait because of Giles's relationship and his profession as an art historian, and also because of his rather soothing quality.

Thomas Struth, Porträt von Giles und Eleanor Robertson, 1987
Courtesy Thomas Struth and Marian Goodman Gallery

History comes through that photograph.

TS: When I first met them, they were actually sitting at the table like that. The photograph was done two years later after a number of lunches and dinners. They've lived together for fifty years or so, but the two of them have a realm of their own.

It's an enclosed world.

TS: It's not so much a symbiotic partnership. I find that's what's quite nicely expressed in that picture of them at the table, there's a quietness and space between them. This is speculation. When you look at a picture, you start to develop narratives. My function is to make the narrative legible.

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