Struth is famous for large-scale photographs of crowds in art museums, their composition often in counterpoint or commenting on works there (his most recent show was at Marian Goodman, NY, in April this year). He is one of a wave of photographers, including Thomas Ruff, ]Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer and ]Axel Hütte, to have studied under Bernd and Hilla Becher at the Academy of Fine Arts, Düsseldorf in the 70s and carried their approach – essentially a school - to unexpected and compelling ends. Thomas Demand is often included, but he belongs to a slightly younger generation and his dedication to model-making is more tangential.
The Becher’s photography, beginning in the late 50s, records industrial and ignored architecture of the late 19th and early 20th century, in large format, high resolution, black and white images. In this, their project would seem to be unexceptional. What makes it exceptional is that industrial building had rarely been considered of architectural merit previously and the application of architectural standards of depiction to heavy industrial facilities in fact sets in motion a string of other revisions, an appreciation of surrounding landscape, in scale, materials, function and design. What starts as simply an extension to classification and cataloguing actually entails social, design and engineering concerns, formal qualities for photography and architecture. In other words, it is also art. It is an elegant demonstration of the integration of art and industry, technique and research; an abiding dream in German art (see also Post 8)
Understandably, their influence has been pervasive. It registers firstly with Minimalist artists interested in industrial materials and construction in the late 60s (see also Post 36), then leads to sculpture of architectural forms in the 70s and later. In terms of photography, the model of applying a strict standard to unexpected or overlooked examples is taken up by The Becher’s students with studies of other architectural features, such as street planning, recreational facilities, public interior décor and landscaping, often printed to an imposing scale. Again, something more of society and conduct is revealed, by simply retreating to wider terms of reference, to a kind of macro-composition. For the Olympian view often establishes strict symmetries or frontalities, tellingly recalls abstraction, for all its clarity and concreteness. Part of the enthusiasm for such work is this double-edged attention to category and composition.
For students such as Gursky and Ruff the function of such pictures soon outruns the usual definition of photography or technique. Their pictures come to rely on digital resources, additional and unusual printing options. Ruff retains some interest in architecture, but commences from portraits to other person-centred genres. Gursky concentrates on contemporary architecture and civil engineering, in particular group conduct fostered there. But the model of a wider social function and classification remains. For Struth, so far these other technical steps have proved unnecessary, since his work has progressively accommodated the spontaneous and incidental to wider fixtures, has catalogued places steadily weaned of strict symmetry, fixed function and even distance.
Struth, of all the Düsseldorf School, comes closest to including the kind of unexpected behaviour and serendipity of circumstance that characterise the ‘decisive moment’ – an earlier model of photography (see also Post 27). Yet Struth’s strength does not lie with portraiture, his attempts to impose formalities there, as with closer studies of plants and vegetation, are largely indifferent. His forte remains the public place and wide angle (like his colleagues, he eventually accepts colour) but increasingly, the architectural features or functions grow less defined, socially and spatially. Early works such as West 25th Street (1978) and Sommerstrasse, Düsseldorf (1980) play off opposite sides of the street, variations on a theme, as much period style as building regulations. Following works such as Shinju-ku (1986) and Vico de Monti (1988) document such a complex set of structures and geography, that a simple category, much less an overarching symmetry or frontality, is obscured. Later works such as Wittenburg (1991) and Dessau (1991 end up stressing an asymmetry.
Struth’s art museum interiors begin around 1989 and initially stress symmetry and placement of works against the public’s deference. Later works such as Venice (1992) relax this and instead underline the contrast between background architecture and foreground traffic and dispersal. While Struth has continued to pursue other themes, it is the potency of the play between museum and visitors, art and life, one approach to photography meeting another; that has become his signature.