Thomas Struth… Picture Perfect

Thomas Struth at Golan Heights, Israel 2011, © Dan Hirsch
Thomas Struth at Golan Heights, Israel 2011, © Dan Hirsch

Two weeks ago I had the unbelievably exciting opportunity to interview world famous photographer, Thomas Struth. Ever since developing a curiosity spanning outside of the fashion industry and into art, I can remember admiring Mr.Struth’s work. He has amassed quite the portfolio since the start of his career over thirty years ago. After dabbling in the arts and studying painting under artist Gerhard Richter, Mr.Struth turned to photography. In the late 70s he began photographing cityscapes around the world, but his interests soon expanded, leading to the start of his Family Portrait series. As mentioned below, his portraits are an ever-growing body of work, in contrast to his Museum Photographs, his most celebrated series, and one of his latest projects, Nature and Politics.

You may remember, HERE, when I compared Mr.Struth’s family portraits to the portraits shot at the end of Givenchy Couture each season. Although he is a photographer at heart, I was eager to discuss the role that fashion plays in his existing bodies of work. Our conversation, transcribed below, was an exciting opportunity for me to learn more about his career and philosophy behind photography. Since speaking, I have grown an even greater admiration towards both Thomas Struth as an artist and his work as its own entity.

Minnie Muse: How does your background in painting effect how you photograph?
Thomas Struth: Studying the history of painting taught me that pictures are constructed. Every element in the picture lets us reach an overall balance and an overall dynamic of information. You know when you take away an element all the other elements change, as well; I think that just made me very aware of how pictures are constructed.

MM: How do you choose the families photographed in your portraits?
TS: Family Portraits is a very small, still developing body of work. I never reach out so much to find families, I live my life and occasionally there is a new family or new people who I find interesting. The number of family portraits grows exponentially much slower than, for example, when I was working on streets, or the museum pictures, that was much more proactive. Sometimes, on occasion, I will make a photograph of a family who asks me, but that is very rare. I will only do that when I think there is something interesting or I see in that family something that somewhat touches me.

MM: What if you could photograph any family in history?
TS: I’ve never thought about things like that, I am not so good with famous people. Normally, photographing very well known people, it is very problematic, and when I got this request to take a photo of the queen, I thought I just could not say no, I might have been a coward in a way.

MM: You have photographed countless urban spaces, what made you want to explore a rural environment, like the jungle?
TS: Well, when you make pictures one thing is the dynamic and the reasoning of what leads you to make the picture, but once the picture is made, then the question is, what do you do with it? You study and observe what the reaction is with the picture. With the paradise photographs, the idea was that I wanted to make the pictorial structure very complex and detailed, where the observer could not ever completely see every detail and so the observer would be forced to lose himself or herself in the observation. I thought the most obvious object to do that would be forest, and then I thought that to do the forest would maybe be too easy because you have the sort of vertical stance. Then I thought maybe the jungle would be the best because of the very dense complexity of structure. I think in the end the effect that these pictures have is so evident and yet the structure is so complex that usually they make the observer very calm.

MM: How do you choose which paintings to photograph people observing in your museum series?
TS: This is all limited, or mostly limited to the figurative work, because that is the only kind of painting with the doubling effect, the situation of figures in the painting and the situation of figures in front of the painting. I select quite intuitively the pictures, the paintings that I like a lot. When I started at the Louvre I looked at Delacroix because I love Delacroix’s work, but then I found it too evident or too obvious. For example, Death of Sardanapalus (1927) is a vertical painting with a big bed and two naked women and a kind of a pale looking man, it is a fantastic painting but it would have been too obvious in a photograph, so I picked Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa (1819) because it makes for a more interesting combination.

MM: Does anyone style your portraits?
TS: I almost never interfere with what people wear in the family portraits, except when there is a certain pattern in a t-shirt or dress that I know will be visually too magnetic to an unjustified degree. For example, if someone were to wear a Burberry-style pattern, something that would be visually attractive for the eye but had nothing to do with the dynamic of the family, eventually I would say, maybe you can change into something else. But I would say 95% of the time I did not do that, I just left everything how it was.

MM: What role does fashion play in your photographs?
TS: For fashion I am interested in messages, in subject matter that is timeless. For example, in my street photographs, in my early ones, you see that all these cars are from the late 70s, so they don’t exist anymore, but in clothing, it is a bit less dramatic, even though in fifty years when you look at the family portraits people might dress differently, one day you will see it.

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