An OCA Study Visit to the Thomas Struth Exhibition, Whitechapel Gallery

Thomas Struth Photography Exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, London

OCA Study visit on 3rd September 2011

I did some reading around Struth  and his photography in preparation for the Study Visit. Born in Germany in 1954, he originally studied painting at the Dusseldorf Academy but then moved towards photography where he came under the influence of Bernd Becher, professor of photography and his wife , Hilla.  The Bechers were known for their rigorous devotion to the 1920s German tradition of Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), and their photographs were clear, black and white pictures of industrial archetypes (pitheads, water towers, coal bunkers). In an early interview whilst still a student, Struth commented that

“Photographs that impress me have no personal signature”.

“The photograph – “the undeniable truth of what is in front of you” – is for him the product of “an intellectual process of understanding people or cities and their historical and phenomenological connections. At that point the photo is almost made, and all that remains is the mechanical process.”

For me this goes right back to the early photographers with their  belief in the objectivity of the camera, whereas as now much more is written and discussed regarding ways in which the camera reflects the photographer in choice of composition and view etc.

The visit

My journey to the Whitechapel Gallery was not a good one.  It was a warm day; there was more weekend disruption than usual to underground services and the train was stifling.  People were wandering around underground corridors trying to find a train to catch! I had to travel to a different station (Liverpool St) from the one I normally use and I was unsure of directions. There were also groups of police at various points along the way, and some of them I spoke to said they were waiting for an ‘assembly’ by the English Defence League (EDL). (Apparently we are no longer allowed to call them demonstrations). It was odd, I felt almost unreal and this feeling persisted (more on this later).

Our group had already started their tour of the Exhibition so I joined them on the fringes to begin with.  The photographs were in groups, but not in chronological order and I will refer to the ones which particularly struck me as I walked around. The first photograph I saw was

A semi-submerged rig (2007). Almost covering a wall and with vivid colour.  This remained the most striking image of the whole exhibition for me.  Struth has captured the immensity of the rig and the sharp diagonal lines of the anchor cables almost leapt out of the frame towards me. It looks like a behemoth arising from the sea.

Stellerator Wendelstein 7-x 2009

Grazing Incidence Spectometer

These are examples of the highly detailed  technological photographs. The Guardian  interview reports Struth comparing these to  “landscapes of the modern brain” – the one-sided investment in technology and science versus the “dwindling of political thought and engagement”.  I’m not actually interested in the insides of engines etc  but there was something that drew me towards the sheer complexity portrayed.  I also thought what wonderful jigsaws these would make.

I had another thought as well concerned with scale. There is immensity of external scale of a structure (rig) as opposed to complexity of detail within a structure where everything has to be in a certain order to work to work properly (and safely).  Am I learning anything here about Thomas Struth and a search for order within?

Another room displayed a selection of family portraits taken around the world between 197i8 and 2010.  Here Struth is reported as attempting to show the underlying social dynamics by inviting the families to organise themselves within the pose. I was reminded here of Bert Hellinger, the German psychotherapist and his theories on family and systemic constellations. Hellinger adopts a phenomenological approach towards recognizing what is essential out of all the diversity present in the world.  So far as families are concerned he formulated an idea of ‘The Order of Love’. Each family follows an order of precedence and some of us may take on destructive family patterns as a way of ‘belonging’ to our family and re-enacting earlier generational traumas.

The Ma Family, Shanghai

It looks as if they chose to sit in their kitchen.  I can only conjecture that this is the room where they experience themselves most as a family, eating and talking together but , then, this is only my imagination.  The image is very large and in the actual very large photograph you can also see some motion blur on the gentleman standing by the fridge. I wonder why he moved?

The Felsenfeld/Gold family 2007

What is this room?  It looks like a school room with the large map on the wall and the worn, wooden floor.  What are they showing about themselves?  Does this mean the family originate from all over the world? To me they look only partially relaxed in their environment somehow – erect, sitting forward, some arms and legs crossed.

Eleanor & Giles Robertson, Edinburgh 1987

Here the depth of field is shorter so the background is shadowy. To me this looks like an informal, formal photograph. Why did they choose to sit at the dining table and opposite each other?  Is this how they often sit? Mr Robertson looks interesting to me.  I can see a twinkle in his eye. His wife looks rather bored.

I found all of the portraits intriguing. The ones displayed were more formal than informal as if the families are responding to an older, Victorian idea, of how families should pose for family photographs (or could we be seeing something here which fits with Hellinger’s theories?).  I would have liked to have seen some relaxed and informal photographs but I guess that Struth doesn’t go in for that type of photography.

It also reminded me of his diamond jubilee portrait of the Queen and Prince Philip – which isn’t in the Exhibition. They are also posed in this kind of way – being informally formal as it were. The Guardian interview goes into more detail about this portrait and how Struth approached it,  “My approach was to say: here is the Queen and her husband, but here, also, is an elderly couple of the same generation as my own parents. What I am happy about most of all is that they are both very alert and so present in the room at this second, that they are not thinking of anything else at that moment the picture is taken.”  That reminds me of the Robertsons’ portrait taken so many years before.

There were smaller black and white photographs of cities.

A very poor, low resolution image but showing the perspective which Struth captured in his series.   Taken in cities such as London, Rome, Tokyo etc and somehow showing the less attractive side of cities.  There is mainly an absence of people but remnants of them such as cars. It’s as if he’s trying to show you that all cities are pretty much the same – people are less important than buildings and cars.  Again , in terms of composition, they reminded me of early photographs, composed along architectural principles and concentrating upon a central perspective..

There were other larger, coloured  images of sprawling cities/towns – one in Peru built on sand and another in Japan. Again showing their immensity of scale.  I was very much aware here of patterns made by windows and bricks.

Struth has been reported as looking for stillness in his life.  During his search to conquer his inner restlessness,  he made a series of photographs of jungles entitled New Pictures from Paradise. They have been described as the opposite of the cityscapes. He has said, “I wanted to make photographs in which everything was so complex and detailed that you could look at them forever and never see everything”.  Very different from the Spectometer and Stellerator and yet similar in terms of complexity and detail.   Again, to me, the jungles, although in different places, looked the same – a lush greenness, like the green abundance of nature where I live and where I can choose to be alone or mingle with other people.


I have read some of the blogs from fellow students and more than one has referred to a feeling of flatness. I felt the same.  There was an absence of liveliness and beauty for me. The portraits seemed static.  I could stand and admire the largeness, colour and meticulous technical detail but I didn’t feel drawn towards them. I still felt slightly unreal

There was a marked contrast when I walked outside the gallery.  The sun was shining and it was even hotter.  Again there was a long walk back to Liverpool Street and I didn’t really know where I was going until I saw the Gherkin in the distance.

For once it seemed like an old friend. I knew where I was and how I could get to where I wanted to be.  I joined up with a couple of my fellow students and we exchanged views about the Exhibition and discussed cameras. There were even more police, in riot gear, with walkie talkies crackling and we debated whether to dare to hang around and see what happened. We slowly walked toward Liverpool Street and, to our surprise, some of the protesters were there actually blocking our way into the station.

During my journey home I reflected that, maybe, I felt the way I did because there was just too much disparity between what was happening inside the gallery and what was happening outside.  Detail and precision versus the messiness of life!

6th September 2011