Thomas Struth is one of the most successful photographic artists of his generation, but he started out as a painter.
He first studied at the Düsseldorf Art Academy with Gerhard Richter. In the beginning, he used photos only to determine compositions. But in 1976, he stopped painting and was accepted into the world-famous Bernd Becher school, which would influence generations of documentary photographers and artists.
He is best known for his “Museum Photographs,” family portraits and 1970s black and white photos from the streets of Düsseldorf and New York. More recently his work focused on scientific and technological settings, for example close-ups of the Space Shuttle at Cape Canaveral.
The photographer took time out recently to talk with Handelsblatt, as his “Nature and Politics” exhibition was being set up at the Martin-Gropius-Bau museum in Berlin. It runs through September 18 and later will travel to Atlanta and St. Louis.
“You need a reason to take pictures. I’m motivated by what I see happening around me at the moment.”
Handelsblatt: Mr. Struth, your exhibition is called “Nature and Politics.” What is the political aspect of the photos on display here?
Thomas Struth: You need a reason to take pictures. I’m motivated by what I see happening around me at the moment. I believe that the obsession with technology is increasing — both the belief in it and its claim to be the sole means of salvation.
I don’t have anything against technological developments, but that is absurd. Greed, vanity and nationalism are growing stronger. Politics is achieving fewer breakthroughs. Even though it is in the social realm, the way we live with and treat each other, that’s where true progress is needed.
You show nature as artificially organized, like at a theme park, or under threat from megacities. What is your view of politics?
In 2008, I gave a workshop at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida, one hour north of Cape Canaveral. At the end of my stay, I took the general guided tour of NASA. It made an astounding impression on me because I could still recall news reports of the lunar landing in 1969.
During the tour, I realized even more strongly that the Apollo space program was issuing a challenge — a triumphant gesture through which the United States sought to assure itself of its own stature and assert its dominance.
You take viewers to places they can’t reach on their own. How did you get permission to spend four days in the deepest reaches of Cape Canaveral?
First my New York gallerist tried. Then a friend in London gave me the name of a man at NASA who looks after the art collection there, and who considered my request.
You were allowed to photograph the repair of heat-resistant tiles on the Space Shuttle …
… But what emerged was something different than what I had imagined. Because politics between the Eastern and Western blocs during the 1960s — the race for dominance and the rivalry for supremacy — could not be conveyed, as such, through the insulating tiles on the Space Shuttle.
What did you depict?
Perhaps a more subtle, a different treatment of the theme. The promise of salvation through technology only works through idealization, through exaggeration. But when you stand beneath the space shuttle, you see that all the tiles are handmade. They’re individual pieces just like everything else on the spacecraft. The space shuttle Endeavor is like a prototype and seems vulnerable.
Is that disillusioning?
It makes it more human. You sense how painstaking such an undertaking is, how it could never be perfect. The gesture and propaganda make the individual small because the promises are so grand. But it is people who make those tiles, and we’re not perfect.
You went on to photograph more sites of great technology, like your photos from the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Garching near Munich, for instance. They convey a cool distance, but also an aesthetic appreciation of the golden shimmer of the reactor walls.
The detail of the “Stellarator Wendelstein 7-X” looks to me like the imprint of a brain. In a certain sense, the mental world of scientists finds a sculptural equivalent here.
Two almost symmetrically placed blue gloves are seen in the photo. Were you permitted to stage your images?
I wasn’t permitted to touch anything at Cape Canaveral. Officially I wasn’t allowed even to move a cable on the floor to the side – for understandable reasons – but the employees were ready to help as needed. I proceed from what I see at the site; most often I don’t change anything. The subsequent task over a long time period is to evaluate the results, to see what the composition offers visually.
During your visits to large research facilities, you got to know representatives of the scientific elite. And at industrial plants, you met luminaries of the business world. How do their attitudes differ from those of an artist?
People working in production are fundamentally different from those engaged in research. Industrial production adheres to regular processes with precisely predictable results that are as consistent as possible. Researchers experiment: They know how a project will turn out just as little as do I as an artist. I had the impression of a certain affinity.
In the exhibition, your photos in a particular thematic area vary in format. Do you make prints of a single motif in different sizes?
The motif dictates the size. This format exists only in a group of 10 copies and for a while now only in a group of six. There is a simple reason why some pictures turn out to be smaller than others: I never enlarge more than 1:1 — the objects are never bigger in the pictures than they are in real life.
Your photographer colleagues are less finicky. They see a commercial opportunity and provide the market with various sizes of a single motif that are anything but straightforward.
The copies are, of course, a commodity. I live from that. But there are limits. I have often been asked with regard to the Museum Series …
… a famous series of large-format photographs that show people in museums gazing at paintings.
Exactly. I’ve often been asked to make them smaller. But I won’t do that.
At the start, you said that greed and vanity are increasing. It sounds as if you’re talking about the art market.
It’s a cliché to say “things used to be better back then.” But in fact, the art world was different when I was studying. Perhaps 30 people came to the opening of Konrad Fischer’s gallery in Düsseldorf. Today there are too many artists and too many galleries. Art is misused. It’s difficult to identify quality. Categories of evaluation get lost. What worth does it have if it doesn’t seek a wider resonance?
What are you working on now?
I just did an installation for the Siemens headquarters in Munich. With the help of archivists and experts at Siemens, I selected about 60 historical images from the company archives. They are now installed at an exhibition in St. Petersburg, along with some of my own works.
You fear your pictures might be understood as a glorification of high technology. Then you ask Siemens to commission you for its headquarters. Isn’t there a big disconnect there?
Five years ago, a Mexican entrepreneur made an inquiry. He had seen my picture of a drilling platform in Korea and asked if I would photograph his own. As if I was supposed to take a picture of his dog. I refused.
But for Siemens, Germany’s top technology company, you take on a commission?
The project fascinated me as an artist. I investigated the Siemens pictorial archive for a long time, then acted as curator. I didn’t hang an individual work on the wall in a spectacular fashion. This large company interests me in human terms as well; it has a multifaceted energy.
You selected family photos, pictures of production sites and railway cars, but also of forced laborers and the first dynamo.
The pictures from the company’s history inspired me to do a different sort of installation. It hangs in the foyer of the old Siemens building that’s just been renovated, at Wittelsbacherplatz in Munich.
People entering the foyer gain surprising insights by the many historical associations triggered by the images — how complex the sites are and everything the respective employees invested in them. If I had tried to evaluate the firm in only one large-format work, this explosive aspect would have been lost.