Thomas Struth: Photographs 1978-2010. Whitechapel Gallery

Last Friday afternoon after a fairly busy day in London, I finally went to see the Whitechapel Gallery’s Thomas Struth retrospective.

I was lucky enough to visit the gallery at a point in London’s week when the city’s population have finished their working week and have decided to go home, or more likely to go to the pub. A working week disrupted by now infamous riots. It meant that I had the gallery almost completely to myself.

(I had originally had tickets to see Thomas Struth in conversation a few weeks earlier, but was ill and missed it.)

I’ve been thinking about what I think of this exhibition for a couple of days and wondering what I can say that hasn’t already been said, I don’t make a habit of writing about exhibitions. I began to think about Struth’s apparent interest in structures, be they built, social or visual. Then the first online review I read said exactly that, so I guess there is something to it but maybe that’s too simple. 

I began to think about my relationship to Struth as a photographer, as someone whose work I knew from my days as a student and as someone whose book ’Straben’ sits on my bookshelf. In those days, between the Becher students I had always preferred Struth to Gursky (and always preferred Gerhard Stromberg over all of them).

What struck me about this retrospective is that it that it shows Struth’s curiosity, his love of the way the photograph allows us to explore the world we see, for longer. I know a similar thing can easily be said about Gursky, but Struths seems to go beyond the technical sheen of a beautiful photograph. Basically, when I see a Struth photograph I can imagine him making it.

The fact that Thomas Struth was a student of the Bechers is well known, but many dont realise he was originally a student of Gerhard Richter, who, with his family appears in what I think is his most successful family portrait. The Bechers influence can be seen clearly in Struth’s work up until the mid 90’s. The black and white street photographs of this period are well represented throughout the show, and although dwarfed by the huge prints of his later work they are well worth the time to look at properly.

(for those you using a large format camera here is a tip form the late Bernd Becher himself to one of his students: ‘A 5 foot step ladder will solve all your problems’)

I don’t want to talk about the individual elements of this exhibition too much, already lots has been said about his museum work, in fact because of the previous reviews I had expected there to be more of this work in the show, and what there was varied greatly to my expectations Im happy to say.

Since the 'Straben’ photographs Struths work is very much about scale, no surprise here, he has to keep up with Gursky after all. One of the newest images included in the exhibition is a photograph of a Korean oil rig tied firmly to the dock, a monstrous image with connotations of the power of our reliance on fossil fuels. This image dwarfs everything in the show. With this photograph is Struth moving towards the realm of Edward Burtynsky?

This show is excellent and well worth the entrance fee and your time, and it needs time.

But part of me wonders, with a broader look at contemporary photography, how far can this kind of approach continue? Struth and the other well documented Becher students have spawned a million clones on this side and the other side of the Atlantic from when I was a student (11 years ago). 

I hope this show inspires more than just the purchase of a large format camera and a 5 foot step ladder, I hope people see beyond the beautiful, wall size prints and see Thomas Struth’s love of exploration and eye for detail (just look at how, Gerhard Richter’s wife is holding their daughter for example).

Just try to imagine him making the pictures.

Exhibition Info

Thomas Struth Photographs 1978-2010

Whitechapel Gallery

6 July - 16 September 2011, Galleries 1, 8 & 9