Thomas Struth began taking photographs of industrialised cities when he was studying under Bernd Becher (born 1931) at the Düsseldorf Academy in the late 1970s. He has continued to explore and develop the theme for almost twenty years, focusing his attention on such cities as New York, Tokyo, Berlin and Naples. Since the mid 1980s he has also produced landscapes, portraits and photographs of visitors in museums. Struth's images of the urban environment concentrate on seemingly unspectacular streets and public spaces. He seeks to record the face of urban space, seeing the architectural environment as a site where a community expresses its history and identity. In interviews he has stated that his images aim to explore what public spaces 'might say about the people who live in these sites.' (Quoted in Gisbourne p.5.)
In recording the urban environment, Struth deliberately refers to the tradition of black and white documentary photography, adopting a seemingly objective position. The compositions are simple and the photographs are neither staged nor digitally manipulated in post-production. Struth has said: '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.) However, in spite of a link to the reportage tradition, Struth avoids both its snapshot approach and its quest for the capture of a fleeting, spontaneous image. Rather he carefully selects the sites where, using long exposures he makes sharply focused images.
In Vico dei Monti, Naples 1988 Struth focuses his camera upon the Neapolitan cityscape. The viewer is confronted with a wall of densely packed houses and apartment buildings rising steeply up a hillside. The city Struth photographs is filled with traces of domestic activity. Balconies and railings are hung out with washing and a motley array of television aerials compete for space on the terraced rooftops. The city bears witness to incremental growth. Modern blocks have sprung up beside buildings whose flaking plaster walls and architectural style suggest much greater age. The chaotic use of urban space is thus very different to that seen in Struth's East German photographs, for example Ferdinand-von-Schill-Strasse, Dessau, 1991 (Tate P20155). Here, carefully parked cars and regimented blocks of public housing present an image of uniformity and order. Struth's images can thus been read as exploring differences in national character through the way urban space is inhabited.
However, in making his images, Struth attempts to avoid as much human activity and incident as possible: there are few people in the photograph, for they would distract from the intense focus on the buildings and space. As with his other urban scenes, Struth photographed Naples very early in the morning so as to make sure there would be few people about. He also avoided strong, dramatic contrasts of light and shade, rather preferring the slightly overcast, greyish light of early morning. This serves to enhance the neutral treatment of the scene.
In its silent, intense focus on the architectural environment at the expense of human incident, the photograph transforms a familiar, Western location into a subtly unfamiliar one. The deserted city is presented in a way it is not normally seen. There are also no hints as to how the image is to be interpreted. The viewer is thus led to linger over what might otherwise seem an un-noteworthy, everyday vista. The spectator is invited to spend time with the image, to look and to question. As Struth has said, his work is intended to 'give pause' and thus resist immediate consumption. He seeks to bring about a 'move to investigative viewing' which is also a 'call to interact.' (Quoted in Buchloh p.31.)
Mark Gisbourne, 'Struth', Art Monthly, no.176, May 1994, pp.3-9
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
Thomas Struth: Strangers and Friends, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Art, London 1994, reproduced p.9