12 August 2011

Just when I thought..

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.

It’s a large-format paperback, in a wide, square size you wouldn’t expect in this binding. The design – by 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
He also speaks intelligently and informatively about photography and what it can do in other contexts – about exposing social architectures, the simultaneity of different strands of existence in urban life (his cityscapes), about the sublime, the way his pictures work, and about the function of art – it is, he says, a reconciliation with the past and a way of thinking about how we will move forward into the future; a way of making sense of, and coping with, the present. This joins up completely with my experience of the show and the photographs, which face up to subjects such as the overwhelming complexity and strangeness of modern technology, the abundance of visual cultures and even how families look and relate to each other in ‘family portraits’. All of the subjects are treated with a sort of intense, investigative gaze that is reflected in the way you have to look at the photos – there are clues and visual allusions everywhere that help you to read the photographs for history, social context and personal resonance, and to think through them.

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.