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.
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.
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: 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
Thomas Struth, Shanghai street, 1995, Deutsche Bank Collection
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.
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.
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?
Thomas Struth, Coenties Slip, New York
(Wallstreet) 1978, Deutsche Bank Collection
©Thomas Struth, Düsseldorf
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
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
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.
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