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b. 1954, Geldern, Germany
Thomas Struth was born in 1954 in Geldern in the German state of Nordrhein-Westfalen, near Düsseldorf. He trained under Gerhard Richter and Bernd and Hilla Becher at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf from 1973 to 1980. Richter’s early blurred “photopaintings” as well as the Bechers’ direct, methodically composed black-and-white photographs of Germany’s industrial landscape left a lasting impression on the young artist. Initially interested in painting, Struth turned his attention to photography in 1976. Two years later, he was awarded the Kunstakademie’s first scholarship to New York, where he produced a series of black-and-white cityscapes. These deadpan views, taken from the center of various streets, offer vast perspectives punctuated by a seemingly endless rhythm of architectural facades. Strangely absent of both people and motion, Struth’s realistic cityscapes silence the cacophony traditionally associated with the urban experience. In their careful composition and attention to topographical detail, they recall the nineteenth-century Parisian vistas of French photographers Eugène Atget and Charles Marville. Struth exhibited these works in his first solo exhibition, at P.S. 1 in New York in 1978. He went on to produce similar series in Paris (1979), Rome (1984), Edinburgh (1985), Tokyo (1986), and elsewhere.
In the mid-1980s, Struth began a series of color and black-and-white portraits of individuals and family groups, using the same large-format camera he employed for his cityscapes. This series grew out of an earlier but never completed collaborative project with psychoanalyst Ingo Hartmann, Familie Leben (Family Life) (1982), in which Struth and Hartmann analyzed family snapshots that Hartmann’s patients brought with them to therapy. Giles Robertson with Book, Edinburgh (1987) and The Hirose Family, Hiroshima (1987) exemplify Struth’s belief in photography as “a tool of scientific origin for psychological exploration” rather than a voyeuristic or fetishizing medium. This ongoing series explores the personal and cultural dynamics that condition how we see ourselves and others as well as how our individual and collective identities condition such perceptions. With unyielding gazes, Struth’s subjects confront the viewer, forcing him or her to participate in this dialogue. These psychosocial documents hark back to August Sander’s epic photographic series Das Antlitz der Zeit (The Physiognomy of Our Time) (1929). Struth has also been making one-hour video portraits since 1996, real-time headshots of individuals staring back at the camera, mute and virtually motionless.
As a result of his portrait work, Struth developed an interest in Renaissance painting, which precipitated his best-known series, the Museum Photographs. In lush, large-format color prints, Struth captured anonymous individuals and crowds looking at iconic works of Western art in the world’s most popular museums. Louvre IV, Paris (1989) depicts several spectators from the back, immobile before Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa (1819). Two of them stare at their guidebooks rather than the masterpiece. National Gallery I, London (1989), Pergamon Museum III, Berlin (2001), and Museo del Prado XII, Madrid (2005) illustrate similar scenes. As attentive to architectural surroundings as to people and objects, Struth emphasizes museum-going as a complex social ritual of seeing and being seen, one in which the museum itself functions as both custodian and broker of cultural capital.
Since the early 90s, Struth has expanded his photographic vocabulary to include natural landscapes (jungles, deserts, forests), intimate nature studies, celebrated architectural monuments (Notre Dame, Milan’s cathedral), and Chinese cityscapes. From 1993 to 1996, he taught photography at the Staatlichen Hochschule für Gestaltung in Karlsruhe, Germany.
Comprehensive retrospective exhibitions of Struth’s work have been organized by the Kunsthalle Bern (1987), Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston (1994), Carré d’Art, Musée d’Art Contemporain in Nîmes (1998), Dallas Museum of Art (2002), Museum für Gegewart in Berlin (2004), and Museo de Art de Lima (2005). In 1997 he was awarded the Spectrum International Photography Prize of Lower Saxony. Struth lives and works in Düsseldorf.