Thomas Struth's mischievous photography.

Thomas Struth's mischievous photography.

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.

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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.

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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.

Lee Siegel is writer based in New York and a former Slate art critic.