Thomas Struth's mischievous photography.

From daguerreotypes to digital.
March 21 2003 12:58 PM

Truth or Dare

Taking a closer look at Thomas Struth's objectivity.

Click here  or on the images to see the slide show.

(Continued from Page 1)

Struth's remarkably precise family portraits, of Germans and Americans and Chinese and Japanese, lose their distinctness under the pressure of that very precision and begin to seem as undifferentiated from each other as Struth's cityscapes. To paraphrase the title of Walter Benjamin's overcited essay—and Struth cherishes Benjamin—you might say that these impersonal, and even interchangeable, photographs express, for this artist, the fate of the family in an age of mechanical reproduction. Unsettlingly, perhaps even vindictively, these portraits reduce modern life to the abstraction that modernist painting, inspired by photography, once made of it.

Click on image to view slide show
Art Institute of Chicago II, Chicago, 1990

This is why, in Struth's magnificent museum photographs, the figures in the paintings seem uncannily more real than the actual, living people looking at them. Painting, you see, has a power that photography lacks. But it is not the power of some banal eternalness that we all have learned to think is the quality of great art. In Louvre IV, Paris, the dying figures in Gericault's Raft of the Medusa—the seminal work of French Romanticism—breathe their mortality, their gradual extinction, while the Japanese museum-goers viewing it seem fixed forever in some mundane impermanence. In a photograph of people standing before a Seurat painting, the painting itself possesses all the briskness of being, not the people staring at it, and you recall that Seurat based his paintings on photographic principles.

Indeed, Struth's empty streets, and his anonymous-seeming churches and families, and his contrived junglescapes (the series is ironically titled Paradise) all seem to undermine human beings, and human places, and human longing altogether. The question is whether these modest spectacles of soullessness are spiritual protests against soullessness or deliberate, defiant expressions of the condition that they represent.

No wonder Gerhard Richter's eyes, in Struth's portrait of Richter and his family, insinuate a sly, defiant, challenging smile behind their heavy black-frame glasses. His painter's gaze, devoted to brilliant subordinations of painting to photography—is about to be trapped in what Struth regards as photography's narrow, subordinate perspective.


Sports Nut

Grandmaster Clash

One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

Do the Celebrities Whose Nude Photos Were Stolen Have a Case Against Apple?

The NFL Explains How It Sees “the Role of the Female”

Future Tense

Amazon Is Now a Gadget Company


How to Order Chinese Food

First, stop thinking of it as “Chinese food.”

Scotland Is Inspiring Secessionists Across America

The Country Where Women Aren’t Allowed to Work Once They’re 36 Weeks’ Pregnant

The XX Factor
Sept. 18 2014 11:40 AM The Country Where Women Aren’t Allowed to Work Once They’re 36 Weeks’ Pregnant
Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Sept. 18 2014 3:19 PM In Defense of Congress Leaving Town Without a New War Vote
Sept. 18 2014 6:02 PM A Chinese Company Just Announced the Biggest IPO in U.S. History
Sept. 18 2014 4:15 PM Reactions to a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Reveal Transmisogyny
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 18 2014 3:30 PM How Crisis Pregnancy Centers Trick Women
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 18 2014 1:23 PM “It’s Not Every Day That You Can Beat the World Champion” An exclusive interview with chess grandmaster Fabiano Caruana.
Brow Beat
Sept. 18 2014 4:33 PM The Top 5 Dadsplaining Moments From The Cosby Show
Future Tense
Sept. 18 2014 5:43 PM Oracle’s Larry Ellison Steps Down, Will Be Replaced by Hurd’n’Catz
  Health & Science
Sept. 18 2014 3:35 PM Do People Still Die of Rabies? And how do you know if an animal is rabid?
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.