Monday, September 5, 2011

Study Visit: Thomas Struth

Completing one of my resolutions upon starting Landscape, this weekend I attended the OCA study visit to the Whitechapel Gallery to view the Thomas Struth exhibition.  Apart from the excitement of a major anti-facism demo going on just outside the doors, the event was well worth the travel for a variety of reasons. 

The primary goal was an opportunity to view a major photographers original work hung in a gallery in the format and scale that he originally intended.  However, equally important was the chance to network with other students and to meet Gareth and Clive from the OCA.This was the first time in two years that I have met anyone from the OCA and also more than 1 student.   The primary value of studying with the OCA versus simply pulling out a number of "how to" books is the ongoing tutor feedback from the assignments we complete and the peer review of photographs on flickr both by students and by tutors. Meeting some of these people that I have already been in a virtual dialog with was both fun and good for my enthusiasm.  It relieved a little of the sense of isolation of distance learning.

As I have written previously in this blog, I have an ongoing interest in the Düsseldorf school of Photography and the photographers that studied there under the tutelage of the Bechers.  I had previously obtained the book accompanying this exhibit, prior to knowing about the visit, so had some familiarity with Struth's work.

The clear and obvious difference between looking at the images in the book and seeing them in reality was the overwhelming size of the work; and I use the word "overwhelming" deliberately, at times I felt that the images were too large, the small space of the gallery left me wanting to step further back from the work than was possible.  Conversely the size lent the images a three dimensionality, the detail within the shots almost drawing me into the photograph.  The sense I had was more of experiencing the photographs rather than looking at them, there was an element of cinema versus television about the exhibit.  This was further enhanced by an apparent luminosity to the photographs, the technique of bonding the prints to clear acrylic made them seem to glow, again more like a monitor screen than a print,  I suspect that the effect might be due to the prints being slightly transparent and that light was passing through and being reflected by the wall underneath as well as reflecting from the surface of the actual image.

What is it about German photographers that they need to print to such huge dimensions, Andreas Gursky and Thomas Ruff also pursue the bigger is better mantra.  It does change perception of the photographs, in Ruff's photographs of peoples faces the scale changes the experience from looking at a person to looking at a photograph of a person, but even so, I doubt that this Germany based photographer is going to be printing at 2x3 meters any time soon, although I have a couple at 80x80cm...

Whilst size is clearly a key feature in Struth's work, the exhibit revealed other aspects.  A key value in attending a guided visit was the insight from the museum curator and the OCA staff, helping to link what might otherwise be seen as disparate pieces of work.  What became clear was that his work follows a number of threads, to which he continues to revisit.  Whilst his style and approach have changed over the years, Struth's basic subject matter has remained remarkably constant, with Architecture, Technology, Peoples interaction with Art, and Family being consistent themes.  More recently he has also began a study of jungles, developing a series of photographs entitled Paradise.  These themes occur again and again, however, the complexity of his work is changing, images become fuller and more complex as time passes.  He seems to be moving from very carefully formally structured photographs to almost chaotic scenes in which the eye finds tremendous detail but searches in vain for an underlying symmetry or structure.

A central theme, in his work, is the management of space, whilst many photographs appear chaotic, they exist within a very tightly controlled space delineated by the frame.  He rarely allows much in the way of negative space around a subject, detail flows from the centre of the photograph all the way to the edge of the frame.  The degree to which he needs to manage the space is reflected in his occasionally hiring people to act as visitors in some of his more expansive museum shots, such as those taken at the Pergamon in Berlin. Another example are his series on families in which he arranges the space in which the people will pose, very carefully aligning the frame to objects, walls, doors, but, he does not manage the people within the space.  They can pose, stand, sit, wherever they wish, but clearly must be within this very tightly controlled frame.

So what did I learn, how can this inform my own practice:
1.     I am attracted to the idea of developing central threads to my own work.  I already have my underwater photography to which I return every year, however, I need to think about how I can develop similar continuities in my above water work.  It may be too early to really specialize, but there clearly is value in returning again and again to themes, if for no other reason than to see how I am developing.
2.     Think very carefully about the frame, not just the subject.  I do know this, but often fail to appreciate how important it is to consider what sits at the edge of the photograph rather than what sits in the middle.  For Struth the edges of the frame were what clearly differentiated his early typographies from those of the Bechers.  The Bechers almost always kept the frame edges clear, Sturth almost always runs the buildings through the edge.
3.     Typographies have been done!  It might be fun to compile one for my own interests, but no one is going to be too impressed if I submit such a thing as an assignment. 

I also had a chance on my return trip to Munich to reflect on the exhibition and to consider some ideas for future assignments:

1.     People engaged with the city.  I have a tendency to eliminate people, I need to include more people in my landscape work.

2.     Remember that architecture is about people not buildings, people add scale, movement and purpose to a building.
3.     Although not wanting to do a typography, certain key threads might work in my imagery:
1.     Places of Worship
2.     Jewish legacy in Munich - the new Synagogue complex is a great subject and one with great social and historical context for the city.
3.     A deeper look at the cities Nazi past and how modern Munich copes with this element of its' heritage. 

All in all a great weekend, the first and certainly no the last study visit I plan to attend


  1. Hi Shaun

    A Fascinating read. Great to meet you and I am glad you got so much out of the visit.

  2. Good to meet you on Saturday, Shaun; and I hope you appreciate the trouble we went to to organise the demo outside!!

    Seriously, great that you could make the trip, and pleased to read your reflections. I also felt there was perhaps something out of balance between the size of the images and thescale of the gallery.

  3. I'm sorry I didn't get the chance to talk to you last Saturday Shaun. We were a large group weren't we. I think your reflections are both comprehensive and thoughtful.