|Semi Submersible Rig, 2007|
..I couldn’t love the Whitechapel Gallery more, they go and put on this summer’s exhibition - Thomas Struth: Photographs 1978-2010. Weirdly, my mood was set by looking at the exhibition catalogue, which I usually do after coming out of a show (I have lots of strange, nerdy exhibition rituals, mostly to do with a childish desire not to ‘spoil’ the surprise of the work before I see it..) While waiting for a friend to arrive at the gallery, I took a look at this publication (which isn’t obviously a catalogue as much as a trade-focussed ‘survey’ of the photographer) and loved it enough to splurge a precious £30 on it.
Fernando Gutierrez Studio - isn’t ‘shouty’, it’s pretty understated in fact, but there’s something about the treatment which is strikingly original. The cover image, for example, isn’t an obvious choice, but the hi-tech industrial colour-palette of Space Shuttle 1 Kennedy Space Center is very beautiful and deliberately engaging. Inside, the plates are beautifully printed on one paper stock, and four substantial essays are printed on another, with an illustrated ‘list of works’ section at the back. From the perspective of someone who does this stuff for a living (a geek), this book is pretty inspiring and definitely the best catalogue I have seen for a long time.
Something else that struck me about the show itself was the generosity of the photographer – he speaks in the exhibition film, at length, about his practice and his working process, in detail and in the context of his studio. Struth’s insights into his work and inspiration feel very intimate – they seemed to chime exactly with the experience I had standing in front of the photographs, which leads me to feel that Struth has a very exact and finely-tuned sense of what his photographs do and how they do it. His description of the Paradise series and its effects, for example, seemed disarmingly precise. Standing in front of these huge, colour prints – dense, apparently unstructured scenes of tropical vegetation – I feel drawn into the viewing experience, into an act of looking which retraces the steps of the photographs making.
|Paradise 36, 2007|
Struth talks a lot about the viewer and about looking – particularly with regard to these jungle scenes. With nothing to ‘interpret’ as such – a jungle is a jungle is a jungle – the viewer is thrown back onto themselves, onto an awareness of where they are standing, what they are looking at and how they are looking. The effect is generous, thought-provoking and meditative.
|El Capitan, 1999|
|Milan cathedral, 1998|
Lots of reviews of this show have mentioned the same aspects of the work – it’s scale, Struth’s interest in architecture and human responses to the awe-inspiring or sublime. Few mention how subtle and warm the photographs can be. It’s awe-inspiring to stand in front of a ceiling-height photograph of the façade of Milan Cathedral, but it’s also interesting to note how the photographer pulls focus into the foreground, to where ant-sized tourists mill around the cathedral entrance. When Struth’s gallery photographs are hung, at full-size, so that you are on a level with the crowd of spectators inspecting great works of art in institutional settings, these images become involving rather than alienating, and witty with it – you recognise yourself in the works and their subjects. That’s the feeling that stayed with me after leaving this exhibition – I’d been looking at photographs, but they’d been looking right back.
Thomas Struth: Photographs 1978-2010 is showing at Whitechapel Gallery, London from 6th July – 16th September 2011. Tuesday to Sunday, 11.00–18.00; Thursday, 11.00–21.00; Entrance, £9.50/£7.50 concessions. All photographs used in this post are courtesy Whitechapel Gallery, London, and copyright the artist, Thomas Struth.