Thomas Struth: Life through an epic lens

Thomas Struth's photographs were making waves long before his recent portrait of the Queen. A major retrospective shows why, says Laura McLean-Ferris

For the most part, it's appropriate that Thomas Struth creates photographs of monumental scale – as scale itself is an attribute that the artist's cool, precise lens captures and elucidates. It's the big stuff, in other words.

What overpowers us? Where does humanity attempt to exceed itself? Where is it exceeded? And when is it simply grand? The German photographer, now in his fifties, has developed an incisive and sensitive ability to show different forms of grandeur, with his detailed, large-format photographs of space stations, oil rigs, churches and jungles, as well as more intimate subjects – artworks, families, nondescript city streets. Indeed, power and intimacy come together in Struth's Diamond Jubilee portrait of the Queen and Prince Philip, unveiled just days ago at the National Portrait Gallery. As they sit on a love seat upholstered with emerald fabric, the photographer captures nuances in the way the couple position themselves, the gestures created by the positioning of hands and feet. She, in a pale mint dress, is central, bathed in natural light, while he is further back in more shadow, dressed in a dark, sober suit.

Thankfully, after a near 20-year absence from London, a very fine retrospective of Struth's work is currently on view at the Whitechapel Gallery; the East End site has recent form for staging strong, timely exhibitions by major artists (albeit predominantly male) that have not been seen much in the capital – John Stezaker, Paul Graham and Wilhelm Sasnal, who will open a show there in October. As many of Struth's lushly-produced photographic prints are over three metres wide, this is, necessarily, a selective look back at his career, a pared down collection of photographic works carefully choreographed to interact with one another, to reveal the big-picture thinking behind these big pictures.

The (not immediately obvious) connections between a German train station and the Pantheon in Rome, for example, are borne out by adjacent photographs hanging on the gallery walls. In Struth's image of the Pantheon, taken in 1990, the domed architecture dominates the tiny people at its base. The famous, circular hole in the roof is not pictured – we only see pale light streaming down, glancing off neat ridges in rows of geometric detailing, hitting the buttery amber tones in marble pillars, before falling, benevolently, on the scattered assembly below. In an image of St Petersburg's Mokauer Bahnhof from 2005 we see the oculus missing in the Pantheon image: a circular opening to the sky in a more modern structure, where people dash for trains in a flatter, whiter light. One can see how the two structures, containing a similar central feature, represent human lines of flight: the Pantheon is a space to contemplate upwards,to God; the train station is for reaching across expanses of the earth. Both evidence human ambition to reach beyond the self.

Another pairing set opposite one another compounds such contemplation. An overwhelming image of a space shuttle, taken at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral in 2008 depicts, from below, the tiled, metallic belly of this great space-reaching machine, born of human ambition to reach the stars. From underneath the shuttle, a clinically bright glow of light emanates from various apparatus. The facing image depicts the front of Milan Cathedral, its decorative Gothic adornments reaching skyward. Indeed, Struth has commented that he was struck by the similar complexity of a space shuttle programme and a cathedral: both are built by human hands and are enormous feats of ambition and cooperation. Struth's exquisitely detailed images of tangled wires and machines seem to defy the comprehension of one individual, like bizarre collections of accumulated knowledge.

It's not just a technical, observational eye that informs Struth's subjects. There's a thoughtful, moral capacity to his work that was formed during his upbringing and studies in Germany. He emerged among a group of artists, including Andreas Gursky and Candida Höfer, who trained under photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher in the 1970s at the Düsseldorf Academy, and who have become known for their large-scale HD photography. One of young Struth's earliest student projects was a series of several unremarkable Düsseldorf streets from the same vantage point – the structure of the civic planning creating repetitive angles, the sky a pale "V" between two rows of houses lining a road. "Why do cities look the way they do?" Struth asked, acknowledging that every citizen has a share in how a city turns out. It's a question formed and hardened in the Germany of his youth, and, as he puts it, as part of a "confrontation with my parents' generation, with Germany's past, interrogating the structures and realities of dictatorship, capitalism and communism, which inevitably led to the question of individual and collective responsibility for the factual."

This critical regard for power and accountability can be detected in Struth's gargantuan 2007 image of a semi-submersible rig off Geoje Island in South Korea, a photograph that totally dwarfs the viewer. The lower half of the image captures the grey docks and equipment, as well as hefty white cables that reach out to the towering rig-like sightlines. The rig is blood red, four-legged, like a Kraken tethered to the ground by weak ropes. It's a threatening image that evokes both the scale and power of the oil industry, overshadowing individual humans in its overwhelming monstrousness. Why, otherwise, would governments sacrifice their own citizens to keep control of it?

Struth shows that it's easy to see what we value at specific moments in history if we look at the structures we build. Religion, money, national power, industry, even art – it's all there in the colossal scale of buildings we make to honour them. He's not all about the macro, however. His ongoing series of family portraits from around the world, though large, capture a complex psychology of expression, positioning and body language. His images of audiences looking at artworks – gawping at Michelangelo's David, for instance – provide moments of contemplation by bearing witness to a similar collective experience. He has also made a series picturing artworks in museums: a lovely example at Whitechapel shows Vermeer's Woman with a Lute (1662-63). The diminutive scale of the painting, its positioning at the far right of the image, and the way it seems to light up the expanses of dark blue wall around it, somehow allows it to peek its head from outside of history to be viewed as an object in the present.

These stiller moments of contemplation can be compared with the artist's Paradise series – huge immersive images of thick tangles of jungle. It's a very different tangle here, no easier to comprehend but these collections of twisting vines and gentle leaves, oases formed away from human concerns of power and endeavour, are rather lovelier to contemplate.

Thomas Struth: Photographs 1978-2010, Whitechapel Gallery (0844 412 4309) to 16 September

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum