Thomas Struth Audience 2
(Galleria Dell'Accademia), Florenz 2004
C-print mounted on UV Plexiglas
72-3/4 x 94-1/2 x 2-1/2 inches
Edition of 10
I get paranoid by the third time I enter the same art exhibition -- especially if it's the same day. I begin to wonder if the gallerists are watching me because they think I am stalking the works and planning a robbery or something. Truth is, the more you look -- the more there is -- especially when it comes to Thomas Struth.
Fourteen Thomas Struth photographs in the same place is an overwhelming, constantly evolving visual experience. Like sitting down for dinner at the most expensive steak house in town and being served fourteen porterhouse steaks -- you've got to excuse yourself, take a break for digestion and come back. In “Audience,” 2004, the artist continues his long interest in photographing the art viewing public in famous museums, but this time, his 8 x 10 inch view camera focuses entirely on the audience – the interiors have been minimized and the artworks are gone. “Audience” captures the psychological underpinnings of people with a fidelity that makes forgetting about the fact that you are looking at a photograph easier than blinking your eyes. As in a Balzac novel, the medium dissolves and the viewer becomes lost in the fascinating exploration of characters immersed in ideological conflicts generated by both the influence of their surroundings and their own personality and behavior. Struth's detailed exploration of the physical surfaces of these individuals while engaged in making sense out of what they are looking at displays far more than the mere veneer of realism characterized by the irony of much contemporary photography. The hunger for “truth” (rhythms with Struth) keeps us searching the photographs. As viewers, we actively look rather than passively accept what the artist has re-represented.
The artist has been described by more than one critic as “astonishingly conventional.” In contrast to Thomas Ruff and Andreas Gursky, two other high profile German photographers who were also students of the famed Bernd and Hilla Becher at the Dusseldorf Kunstakadiemic, Struth does not process his work digitally -- combining and removing parts of pictures or creating entirely different pictures for his final product. Struth approaches his subject matter with much consideration and gravity, chooses the “perfect” moment to make his exposure, and fixes it on film. Montaging or altering the negative before printing it is to Mr. Struth the destruction of the indexical link between picture and reality. In his mind, the joy of the uniqueness of the medium of photography -- its relationship to reality -- would be decimated. Mr. Struth almost never crops his images post-exposure and he edits his film judiciously. In our consumer age of ironic distance where the viewer suspects both the reality of the photograph and the intentions of the photographer, Thomas Struth is a restorer of the “objective” world. It's true -- the surfaces of Mr. Struth's photographs reflect what was actually in front of the camera.
Choosing none other than Michelangelo's, “David” on the occasion of its quincentenary unveiling at the Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence, Italy as the off-camera object of the museum-goers desire, Struth methodically spent five to six hours a day shooting sheet after sheet of 8 x 10 color film stock from an elevated stage over a seven-to-ten day period. Equipped with a huge strobe light to freeze the subtlest movements and gestures of the audience and to deepen the depth of field and focus of the crowds, the artist provides us with an unguarded, psychological dimension of people “…within their own experience and time.” The scale is unparalleled for Struth -- the images approach the 6 x 11 foot mark with a fidelity that is unattainable with the human eye.
Precise observation by the viewer will be rewarded generously. Unlike previous works with people in museums where Struth used long exposures unaided by artificial light, the figures are etched out from the softer, out-of-focus backgrounds with a reality perhaps more accurately than ever before; hairstyles, costumes, facial and body language and the interconnectedness between the viewer and the artwork render the images “epic” in nature. The expressions on some of the faces remind me of the truth value in the expressions of certain Weegee images of people looking at murder victims. Other faces remind me of the ecstatic gestures of children caught by Alfred Eisenstaedt in Paris at puppet shows or the transparency of a portrait of an outsider completely absorbed in their own world as in a Diane Arbus image.
We are immersed in the richest cross-section of the middle and upper-middle class who regardless of their occupations or residency all come to look at art attired in the “leisure wear” of the present. I became simultaneously horrified and amused at being able to locate a huge sampling of product-placement-like labels throughout. Converse sneakers, Nike tops, Dickies camouflage slacks, Fila handbags, Hard Rock T's, Pepe jeans, Columbia shirts, Pumas, Champion jackets, Evian water, Samsung and Sony digital-camcorders and cameras – they're all depressingly there and strikingly juxtaposed with the image of a miniature “David” reflected in the lenses of sunglasses hanging from tank top collars or resting atop foreheads.
More than a panoramic portrait of the consumer habits of the contemporary mass culture, however, there is a seductive game afoot of attempting to decode the complex inter-connectedness between and among the clusters of people who assemble in front of this monumentally scaled, early 16th -century masterpiece. Struth's photographs reminded me that looking at a work of art is a solitary process. Even if someone is there with a wife or girlfriend, the body language of the viewer unconsciously refers to the relationship with, or response to, the artwork. The traditional gestures and mannerisms that define “couples” or “families” or “groups” on the street or at a typical social function tend to dissolve and we are left to decipher who belongs to who and what are the indicators of specificity of personality that jump out to link one individual with another. It is a game that for me was a source of multiple levels of analysis and made me realize that the images were constantly evolving as I became more entwined in the complex process of looking and processing what I was looking at.
It took three viewings for me to discover that a very attractive woman I had grown to feel a connection with (wearing a T-shirt with the word FUNNY in sparkly colors) was in fact not alone as she engaged in some profound revelation with “David,” but was with her boyfriend. The body language didn't cue me into this fact -- his body was at a 45-degree angle away from her and a couple of feet back and to her left -- the jack from her earphones gave it away when I finally noticed the connecting cord went into her boyfriend's audio-tour-guide machine which he was wearing around his neck. I noticed that the tour guides were not looking at the artworks they describe -- they look into the eyes of their tour group who, are also not looking at the artwork, but are meeting the gaze of their guide. Many of these folks seem agitated; perhaps filled with the anxiety of attempting to compress a lifetime of art-appreciation into a three-minute monologue from a stranger. I found myself searching for clues to decipher how differently men, women and children appeared to process the experience of looking at a brilliant work of art. I was drawn to the looks of loneliness (or was it fear?) that some of the visitors had, and to some others' unbridled ardor, often accompanied by the unconscious self-embrace of this or that body part. Of course the rake of the body, the spiraling of the neck and the upturned eyes posed everyone perfectly to be analyzed, scrutinized. It was as if the artist had secretly coached them to do their very best to look engaged and “authentic” and to focus on some intense spiritual or existential questioning.
And that's the other thing that really got me about this installation of authentically candid images. How in the world did Struth get away with so few people actually watching him while he proceeded to take picture after picture while shooting behind a bulky view camera atop a platform with a huge strobe going off almost directly in front of these people? I actually made a point of counting all the figures in the photographs who addressed the photographer during his exposures. There were unbelievably only four. I identified well over 250 people that were in focus and therefore available for close inspection in the fourteen images overall. This alone is an amazing feat! The combination of the artwork's utter brilliance, the intensity and respect the photographer had to have exuded to be as invisible as possible, and certainly, major judicious editing (the tried and true way photographers have been using the process of the medium since its inception) were definite factors. But there is obviously something else.
On April the 8th I had the pleasure of hearing both Stephen Shore and Thomas Struth speak about their work and show slides at The Great Hall at Cooper Union presented by The Architectural League of New York. The symposium was entitled “Contemporary Photography and the Definition of Place.” Despite the fact that Struth's native language is German and his English was halting and elemental at best, his few words rang crystal clear and iconic. (This, in sharp contrast to Shore, American born, Bard College professor and photography department head, who spoke as if mired in a dusty academic vernacular.) Struth came across as passionate, patient, caring and haunting; he was very obviously totally engaged in coaxing his mind and presence to connect its full potential with the audience around him.
On the day of the symposium, both artists were exhibiting at the same time almost across the street from one another – Shore at Edwyn Houk and Struth at Marian Goodman. I made a point of popping by both shows prior to taking in the “show and tell.” Shore's thirty-five 8 x 10 or 11 x 14 inch images were nostalgic, one-of-a-kind meditations on place and listed as selling for approximately $6,000 each. They were perfect examples of what the marketplace would refer to as important traditional fine-art photography comprised of vintage chromogenic prints from the early to late 70s. They were preciously matted and placed in what looked like white, flat-screened plasma television sets hung approximately 3 feet apart around the circumference of Houk's elegant space. Struth's images, on 57th street , were massively huge C-prints mounted transparently on UV Plexiglas and tucked exquisitely and invisibly (full-bleed fashion) into artist-made grey wood frames. Instantly hitting the viewer with the gestalt of large scale paintings and hanging one after another in a series around the concrete and white of Goodman's pristine space (three or four of them would be hanging almost right next to each other on one wall) they seemed to want to suck us up into their almost viscous physicality. They are listed as being available from 65-80,000 Euros ($100-125,000 American dollars) and are each part of an edition of ten – a total of over $15 million in potential sales. Both artists are pioneers in the art of large format color photography. But here, at Marian Goodman, the boundaries between a photographic activity and painterly scale have been redrawn. The sublime combination of painterly color with the verisimilitude of photography (the influence of both Gerhard Richter and Bernd and Hilla Becher as early mentors from the academy), the globalization of branding and its impact on consumers, the role of the documentary tradition in photography, the psychological portrait of the individual struggling to make sense of something of great beauty and import, and the sociological factors that operate betwixt and between groups that share a particular class and generation at a specific moment in history are here all being commented upon.
Struth has succeeded in creating a super-saturated painterly theatricality that draws us into a kind of history painting for the new millennium. He does not judge or offer definite answers. If anything, the artist shares with us the questions he feels he needs to ask. What can we know about these people in these photographs? Along with his pioneering peers, Gursky and Ruff, Struth is utilizing a new visual vernacular whose complexity and ambiguity will take time to be properly absorbed and understood. But unlike his two fellow classmates, Struth has chosen the analog vehicle of photography to create his images and by making this choice his images became records as well as art objects in a world that has already changed.