In the late 1980s the German artist Thomas Struth began an ongoing series of large format colour photographs taken in famous European and American museums. Like the earlier street scenes and group portraits, the museum photographs reflect his desire to make carefully considered images which present the scene before the camera in an objective way. In interviews he has stated that his work is 'less about expanding the possibilities of photography than about a truer perception of things.'(Quoted in Gisbourne p.6.) He thus keeps compositions simple and avoids all digital manipulation. However, while continuing in his attempt to make visible the passage of time through the employment of long exposures, Struth relaxes his previous compositional restraints. The images are not posed, Struth capturing unstaged, spontaneous moments as visitors look at paintings in art galleries.
The original inspiration for the museum photographs was Struth's fascination with Renaissance portrait painting. This was an interest which grew out of his engagement with portrait photography. He was led to explore the origins of Western portraiture and figurative painting, considering how historical works of art are displayed and viewed within a museum context. He has stated that he sees art works as having become 'mere fetish objects, like athletes or celebrities.' (Quoted in Buchloh p.39.) However, Struth seeks to work against this tendency. Consequently he does not isolate paintings in his photographs. Rather he presents spectators contemplating and therefore actively engaging with images in gallery spaces. The museum photographs can thus be seen as exploring both the process of looking and the relationship of the present to the past, themes that are also explored in the street scenes and group portraits. However, unlike the latter, the people in the museum photographs do not look out to confront the spectator. They rather turn their backs on the viewer, looking at the pictures that hang on the gallery walls.
In National Gallery 1, London 1989 a group of people stand in front of three Venetian paintings. Dominating the centre is Cima's Incredulity of St. Thomas of 1502-04. The Renaissance altarpiece depicts the story of doubting Thomas, the disciple who lacked faith in the resurrection of Christ until he had placed his fingers inside Christ's wound. The story questions the truth of visual information, drawing attention to Struth's own exploration of the process of viewing. The colours and postures of the figures in Cima's painting are mirrored by those of the gallery visitors in the photograph. For example the girl in the blue cardigan bends forward as if in prayer, echoing the pose of doubting Thomas as he extends his arm towards Christ. The body of Christ also forms both the vanishing point and the apex of a triangular composition which extends outwards from the altarpiece to the viewers grouped in the gallery space. Struth thus creates a continuity between the two realms, the museum space being presented as if it were an extension of the painting. There is however a marked contrast between the shallow space of the gallery and the illusion of depth in the painting which appears as a stage before which the spectators are standing.
In the museum photographs Struth elevates an apparently informal event to the scale of a religious painting. Arresting a fleeting moment, he evokes the passage of time and gives the scene an enduring presence. He asks those who look at his work to spend time with his images, just as the people in his photograph do with the paintings they are looking at. In exploring the activity of viewing, Struth invites us as spectators to become aware of our own role as viewers.
Mark Gisbourne, 'Struth', Art Monthly, no.176, May 1994, pp.3-9
Benjamin Buchloh, Portraits: Thomas Struth, exhibition catalogue, Marion Goodman Gallery, New York 1990
Thomas Struth: Strangers and Friends, Photographs 1986-1992, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Art, London 1994, reproduced (colour) p.53