Thomas Struth is one of the most influential European photographers of the post-war period. He has been feted with solo exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Centre National de la Photographie, Paris and the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. He studied at Dusseldorf’s Kunstakademie under Bernd and Hilla Becher and Gerhard Richter. Alongside peers Andreas Gursky and Thomas Ruff he has helped define photography as a legitimate artistic medium. Precisely realised and conceived on a grand scale, his work offers sustained thematic explorations of the contemporary world. His early street scenes detailed the structures and congruities of the built environment; while more recently the Paradise series described the forests and jungles of an apparently Edenic natural state. The celebrated Museum Photographs reflected on the fate of art, and the representation of culture and history. In the mid-80’s he began a series of family portraits – which continues to this day - that betokened an interest in the social circumstances and psychological presence of his sitters.

© Thomas Struth

 

What can you tell me about the new family portraits?

The Family Portraits work is something I started in the mid-80’s. It grows slowly – there are about 45 now – because I don’t really advertise to get new models. You could say I live my life and then occasionally meet new people and something comes up that leads to a portrait. For the past two years I’ve been forcing it a bit more and trying to find a method to do more because it’s been going too slow. It’s a body of work where the more pictures I have, the more interesting it gets. I can make comparisons and use different combinations which I haven’t tried before. A new picture brings new possibilities for combinations.

How long does it take you to make a portrait?

Between three and five hours. There is a very small number of rules: it’s a staged traditional portrait photographed with a large format camera, using only natural light; it should be all the family members (and occasionally some friends, but I’m always interested in the energetic moment of the family group); and I ask people to look into the camera.

 

I usually make a choice for the location, and then people can position themselves on the stage that I’ve selected – which most of the time is where they live. I ask people to sit however they want to sit, or stand. Its part of the system that inevitably people sit or position themselves according to the dynamic of the moment and whoever they want to be close to…it represents the dynamic of the moment in the group.

 

Within that setting there are different freedoms – they can wear what they want, position themselves next to who they want – they can smile or not smile. They can also object to publication and say we don’t like it – don’t use it.

If they approve the family get one first edition print signed and framed as a gift

© Thomas Struth

The Felsenfeld / Gold Families, Philadelphia 2007 (© Thomas Struth, 2008)

 

So are you interested in families as a sociological institution, or as arenas of psychological interrelationships?

Well its both – I think that I was always fascinated by family construction and by the constitution of identity. Once you try to look with a bit more distance, the three constituting elements of life are the family, the cultural environment in which one is born, and the historical time.

Can you see in your own life any reason for this fascination with how families work?

I believe it is somehow related to growing up in Germany not long after the war. My parents – their generation – were trying to build a family life while struggling strongly with the effects of World War II and the psychological pressure of its heritage. My father was a soldier and like everybody had been drafted in the Hitler Jugend. Like my mother he was separated from his family in a very unconventional way. When they came back and wanted to start their own family, they were looking for rules and conventions how to do that.

Did you have a family album with portraits in when you were a child?

I did, I did – that’s one of the main early pictorial influences that I had. There were several family albums, including an album of my family’s history, and a military album that showed my father in different places during the war.

 

That fascinated me because of the difference between the album and what he talked about. He spoke of dramatic experiences he had had, and how terrible everything was. But the photographs from that time showed soldiers on bicycles, or in fields resting.

 

That was a striking early experience of how photographs have a different degree of information – they have their own truth and they show particular things that might not get verbalised.

Looking back at your own family unit did you perceive it as something repressive or as something supportive?

What can I say…life is always a battle between individual desires, conventions, and the desires of other people that live around you that might not totally fit with your own desires, your own plans.

What do you think are the most important effects imposed on the portraits by your working with a tripod-mounted large format camera?

I don’t choose that technique just for these photographs – it’s the technique I use on all my pictures. In the portraits it enables me to make a big print that has a high resolution so I can see the eyes of people, and study their gazes and the expression on their faces. Their clothing, the room, and even their skin is very detailed.

 

And it’s a rather slow process which has a ceremonial aspect: you are spending five or six hours with these people and it’s rather intimate in a way. People have to sit rather quietly. The pictures don’t indicate a brief moment – they are a larger imprint of time

© Thomas Struth

The Ayvar Family, Lima, S.M.P/ Peru, 2005 (© Thomas Struth, 2008)

 

Why do you choose to photograph people in such a way that makes them look a bit emotionless and expressionless?

For me it doesn’t look that way because when you look at every face they’re very different. The stereotype of the laughing or smiling person is very corrupted by advertising and I find It more interesting to work with a much more fine-tuned palette of expressions. Not – smiling boy and smiling girl; happy mother and happy father.

 

I’m very interested in providing a place of observation for the spectator that is a bit uncertain or a bit ambiguous – so that the viewer is almost forced, or invited, to try and consider what the person really looks like, and what they see.

 

For example, if you look at the manner in which people appear in Salgado’s pictures of the miners in Brazil, people are presented as just workers. It’s very immediate and it’s single-track. The exploitation and the sweating bodies is reality, but it’s also a cliché. It is like a self-fulfilling stereotype that reduces these people to one theme that they embody, or that the photographer wanted to highlight. I find that rather boring; it doesn’t sharpen the spectator’s eye

 

 

© Thomas Struth

You have said in the past that “the portrait is the subject matter in photography where the problems of the media are most visible? What did you mean by that?

For the photographer the task is to try to analyse: What did I see that I found fascinating and how can I bring it into the frame? And for the observer it is: What do I see actually in the picture, and with what attitude was it photographed? And when you have a portrait as the subject matter, you have a third person and the whole thing becomes a triangle. The observer becomes the spectator of the relationship between the model and the photographer- a triangular energy that highlights the problem. I don’t know if that sounds like analytical bullshit but I think its true.

And you can photograph still lifes, buildings, flowers, landscapes, and moving objects – cars in motion or birds that fly – but they don’t consciously react. When you have a person they change all the time – with them there’s not one single second that’s the same as the next.

 

 

© Guy Lane, 2008

 

An edited version of this interview first published in Art World magazine