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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