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A former student of Bernd and Hilla Becher and Gerhard Richter, Thomas Struth made a name for himself with his black-and-white photographs of empty streets in Düsseldorf and large-scale images of museum-goers gawping at exhibits. Now in his early sixties, Struth continues to engage in the act of looking with his latest photos of locations in Israel, which are predominantly deserted yet filled with allegorical connotations.
How would you describe your work to someone who hadn’t seen it?
‘That happens fairly often. Say when I’m on a plane, people will ask me what I do and I say, “I’m an artist.” Then they say, “Ah, do you paint or make sculpture?” and I say, “No, I make photographs.” And they say, “Ah, you’re a photographer, what do you photograph?” Then I say, “I make family portraits, I work a lot with architecture and I’ve photographed in the jungle.” And then they say, “So which magazine do you work for?” It’s very difficult. So I would say the bottom line is, I’m a picture-maker and I do photography because the historical time when you would have painted what I photograph is over. It’s absurd; I would need five lifetimes to paint what I photograph, so I use the camera to make pictures.’
This show brings together two different bodies of work: images of the West Bank and a series on technology research in California. What did you want achieve with this pairing?
‘Most of the images are very unheroic. There are a lot of shots that are dire, unordinary and modest. I always want to raise awareness and I have a strong relationship to clarity, that’s why my compositions and choices are very meticulous. I think a lot about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it, and after I’ve done it, it has to undergo a long edit. The picture has to prove that it has a right to be published and that’s a very important evaluation for me, both in terms of “Is there anybody else in photographic history or art history who did that already?”, and “Is there anything new in it that people haven’t seen as such?”’
What do you hope people will consider, particularly in the series shot in Israel and Palestine?
‘To be careful and to not be seduced by the propaganda we are exposed to all the time. There is also an insistence on looking precisely from a distant viewpoint because you’re not so entangled in the narrative of others as it’s not your own.’
What’s the driving force behind your work?
‘I’m interested in the relationship between an individual’s existence and the community of larger social entities. I make impulsive, intuitive decisions, but strangely, when I look back at my work it has to do with existential questions about our restless existence. Photography gives me the opportunity to talk about, look at and be more pensive about these phenomena. Otherwise it’s just the razzmatazz of sensations that you’re confronted with.’
Do you think there is going to be a point with the proliferation of digital and social media that you will not be able to achieve what you want with photography anymore?
‘Could be. I think that to a certain extent I find the art world very limited and photography is very limited at what it can do, and I think I’m doing a pretty good job. Of course, I have to be the first person that is excited, if I’m not there is no point. For me the first and foremost question is what excites me and what bothers me – that’s the difficult part rather than going out and making the actual picture, which is much more easy.’
Do you think photography captures a truth?
‘Yeah it does, I mean it’s a formed truth, a combination of the author’s truth and the factual; if you ever photograph a dog, it’s certainly not a cat. It’s very rewarding to teach yourself to look at photographs and try to see through the eyes of the photographer, to make a trail back from the picture to the eye of the person who saw the image and to think what is the gaze and the attitude behind what I can identify factually.’
You were invited by the National Portrait Gallery to photograph the Queen and Prince Philip. How did that come about?
‘I thought it was incredible they asked me, as I’m not known for photographing famous people. I needed three days to think about it as I wanted time to evaluate the possibilities of success and disaster, but then I thought I cannot say no. I looked at tons of existing photographs and made some requests, such as I wanted to select the dress as I thought I can’t have her wearing something like bright yellow. I find the Queen interesting, even though I hadn’t met her before. I had an impression through the media, I feel for her in a way. It was a very nice experience and an unexpected honour. ’
You also photographed in the National Gallery for your ‘Museum Photographs’ series, which centred on people looking at art. What was it like visiting all the top European and American collections?
‘Nowadays the situation has totally changed in museums. In the late ’80s, when I had this idea, I felt a necessity to say something about museums, looking, and this realm of contemplation, as museums were beginning to get very crowded. The majority of people are interested but they don’t really know what they are looking at and there is all this uncertainty of how to deal with this ‘hot potato’. But compared to now that is yet another story. When you go to the Prado in Madrid you see people immediately take out their cellphone and take a picture of a painting, which they may or may not look at when they get home, instead of looking at it in reality. It’s really absurd, I don’t know what the next step will be.’
Is there a collection in London that you’re excited to see?
‘I’ve spent a lot of time in museums for work and overdosed on Old Master paintings, but that’s changed now. I’ve looked at a lot of paintings in my life, I love painting. I visited the V&A, which I find fantastic but very discombobulating. There are so many different presentation styles and lighting designs. When I think about the memory of what I saw, it’s difficult to focus on one object because all the other sensations are so overwhelming in there – it’s quite particular.’