Hannah Erdich-Hartmann and Jana-Maria Hartmann, Düsseldorf 1987 is one of an ongoing series of portrait photographs of his friends that Thomas Struth began making in the mid 1980s. He had previously gained recognition for his black and white photographs of the urban environment. These works were notable for their stage-like emptiness and their concentration on architectural surfaces. However, despite the change of subject matter, the group portraits reflect his continuing desire to make carefully considered images, which present the scene before the camera in an objective manner. Compositions are simple and digital manipulation is avoided. Struth has stated: 'for me it is more interesting to try and find out something from the real than to throw something subjective in front of the audience.' (quoted in Minelli p.190.)
Struth started making the group portraits, some of which are in colour and others in black and white, while staying with friends as he travelled the world working on the street scenes. In an interview he has stated: 'The first two portraits … I made came from purely personal incentives; on trips to Scotland and Japan … I lived with families for a couple of weeks, and at the end of the trip I wanted to take a photo of the family group as a remembrance.' (Quoted in Buchloch p.29.) The resulting images were the products of a long and self-conscious process of discussion and collaboration. They are carefully considered memorials rather than instantaneous snap shots. Struth would describe the spatial limits of the image, and encourage the sitters to select the setting and their position within the frame. He would then ask them to look directly at the camera. To obtain maximum focus and detail he employed long exposure times. This meant that in order to avoid blurring, the sitters had to chose poses they would be able to hold without moving. Struth continued to use this method for all the later group portraits, be they of friends or acquaintances
Hannah Erdich-Hartmann and Jana-Maria Hartmann, Düsseldorf 1987 is a black and white portrait photograph. Struth presents the mother and child in close up, focusing on their heads and shoulders. In its lack of context, the composition is different from the majority of Struth's other portrait photographs. More typical of his approach is The Shimada Family, Yamaguchi, Japan 1986 (Tate P777745) where Struth photographs the figures in the landscape, presenting them as part of the larger environment.
The close-up composition in the photograph of Hannah Erdich-Hartmann and Jana-Maria Hartmann communicates the intimacy between mother and child. The close-up nature of the photograph also serves to suggests a relationship of trust between Struth and his sitters. They both look intently out of the image, their faces inscrutable and self-contained. Their piercing gaze echoes and yet challenges that of the spectator who looks in at them.
Struth maintains a respectful distance from his sitters, lingering over their exterior surfaces: their skin, their piercing gaze, their hair, their cloths. He does not offer a portrait of psychological depth but rather concentrates on appearances. In photographing people in this way Struth deliberately distances himself from much portrait photography which attempts to capture a fleeting, psychologically revealing moment or expression. Discussing Struth's work, the critic Richard Sennett has written: 'We relate to these images as we might appreciate strangers in a crowd; we feel their presence without the need to transgress boundaries by demanding intimacy or revelation … people guard their separateness even as they present themselves directly to us.' (Sennett p.94.) Struth's portraits encourage contemplation and investigation, inviting the viewer to reflect upon the limits of his or her knowledge of other people. Like Struth's street scenes they are intended to 'give pause' so as to bring about 'a move to investigative viewing' which is also a 'call to interact.'(Quoted in Buchloh p.31.)
Richard Sennett, Thomas Struth: Strangers and Friends, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Art, London 1994, reproduced p.58
Giovanna Minelli, Another Objectivity, exhibition catalogue, Centre National des Arts Plastiques, Paris 1989, pp.189-194
Benjamin Buchloh, Portraits: Thomas Struth, exhibition catalogue, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York 1990