A few years ago, the photographer Thomas Struth was scheduled to participate in a talk at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta with Glenn Lowry, the director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “It would be a trip of three days to America and back to Germany, and usually I don’t do that,” Struth told me by phone from his studio in Berlin, “so I asked the people at the High, What’s interesting to see in Atlanta?” They mentioned the headquarters of Coca-Cola and CNN, Georgia Tech, Elton John’s apartment, and the Georgia Aquarium, and when Struth arrived in town, he went sightseeing, hunting for places to shoot.
A couple of photos that resulted from those visits are now on view at the High as part of “Nature & Politics,” an exhibition of more than 30 works that the 62-year-old German artist shot over the past 10 years. Neon-colored fish fill most of the one he made at the aquarium, a print that is nearly 12 feet long and seven feet tall—large even for him. The fish swim behind a translucent window that stretches beyond the edges of Struth’s photo so that they seem to float magically in the air, a few slightly blurred, darting from one place to another. A row of children and their parents are outside the window, half marveling at the action, half distracted by other matters.
It is a beguiling image, like so many of Struth’s, and it harkens back to a series that helped establish him as one of today’s preeminent photographers, the first “Museum Photographs” (1989–90), which show people looking at masterpieces, like Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day (1877) at the Art Institute of Chicago or the Pantheon in Rome. Deceptively simple, conceptually taut works, they also show those masterpieces, allowing us to see people wrapped up in an aesthetic experience while we are engaged in some variation of that experience. They overlay various types of viewing, encapsulating those rare moments when words fall away.
The people in the aquarium scene are casual, but the image itself is uncannily precise—a discrepancy that lends an uncanny touch to so many Struths. He shot it early in the morning, he said, before the institution opened, so that he would have space and time to work. He does not often employ extras—in fact, humans only rarely appear in his works—but this time he invited High staffers and their families and friends to work with him. “I just asked them to behave as if they’re just normally there,” he said. “Of course, with the children that was fairly easy because they were not interested in me photographing. They just enjoyed being there.”
Answering questions and telling stories, Struth was deliberate and candid, choosing his words carefully as he went. He would sometimes pause for a moment, emit a deep, thoughtful sound, and then respond. Profiling him in the New Yorker in 2011, Janet Malcolm wrote that “he radiates decency and straightforwardness. He is kind and calm and modest. He is the kid in the class everyone wants to sit next to.” He is also, apparently, indefatigable, and Malcolm described him laboring for hours and hours over a single scene, completely absorbed in his work. His working process sounds exhausting.
“Since it’s me who does it, I’m not thinking about myself like that,” Struth said, when I asked if shoots become tiring. “But it’s true,” he continued, “that it requires very intense concentration and a very strong, intense process of evaluation, of looking at all the different elements, observing super closely what’s going on.” Slight adjustments in light can alter things entirely, and “working with people,” he said, “is a different thing because of the distribution of colors in the composition.”
There is, in addition, the difficult matter of what to shoot. “Let’s say I notice something that is attractive,” he said. “Then I have to analyze what attracts me—can I make the cropping of what attracted me in the frame?” He asks himself if the image would be interesting to other people, if it would be “super exciting.” He said, “What I also struggle with is the question, do I have the reason to make that picture?”
Struth shot at CNN’s offices as well, but those images did not make the cut. “I wasn’t excited about them enough,” he said. “Even when I describe to you now what it is, it will be easy to notice that that’s the kind of picture that’s all too known already.” He paused and said, with a funny mixture of disgust and humor, “People sitting in front of flat screens.” His focus had been on the network’s live editing room, where editors look at dozens of monitors and sends footage around the world. He deemed that process “kind of a very strange thing” (“strange” recurs in his speaking as a compliment) but thought “it would be dated after a while. Also, as a subject matter, one that I have seen too often.”
Over the past decade, for the “Nature & Politics” series, Struth has become a connoisseur of enchantingly indecipherable creations, always on the hunt for vertiginously sophisticated technologies. He has shot photos inside rides at Disneyland in California; vast fields of buildings in Ulsan, South Korea, and Pyongyang, North Korea; science labs in New Zealand, Scotland, Germany, and Israel; a pharmaceutical packaging plant in Buenos Aires; and a space shuttle, a Saturn V engine, and facilities at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
He has photographed an astonishing array of machines—all wires and tubes—attached to a man about to undergo brain surgery in a Berlin hospital and hulking, intricate machines at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California that seem to have been cobbled together from scores of similarly remarkable smaller machines. He charts how human expertise and knowledge builds on itself, expanding like a fungus. These images tend to elicit from me two roughly simultaneous responses: fear—at the towering unknowability of the objects and places presented—and absolute awe—at the collective achievements they represent. Even as it foregrounds the alien aspects of advanced technologies, Struth’s work is guardedly optimistic. With clear eyes, it depicts a world moving forward and growing—haphazardly, unevenly, and imperfectly.
Because they are printed big, crisply focused, and largely devoid of people, Struth’s photographs can seem to exist outside of time. It is telling, I think, that he abandoned the CNN images because the screens might someday appear dated. (The clothing of those in his museum photographs can be distracting in this way.)
In its ambition and technique, Struth’s art can also seem to stand apart from much of the art that is being made today, aligning itself with grand historical traditions of photography and painting. “The way that art is produced or made has sort of changed quite a bit, yeah?” Struth said, when I asked about young artists who impress him. “What I see today is a lot of what appears to me like a lot of superficial inventions that are kind of dubiously disconnected from any deep, like, true reason, or heartfelt necessity, or something like that.” He added, “I think in that respect the art world and artists have maybe been sort of corrupted by ambitiousness—for the possibilities that the arts offer.”
But Struth also named a few artists who intrigue him, including the Iranian sculptor Nairy Baghramian, who makes slyly sumptuous, minimal abstract works that allude to body parts. “I find her really unusual. Strange work,” he said. “It’s certainly something that intrigues me to think about and wonder, like what elements of contemporary existence she embeds in her sculptures, yeah? Not only as a physical object—as a sentiment or a problem or something between pain and joy and excitement and anxiety, of where to locate it.”
Excitement and anxiety—those twin feelings flow through Struth’s own work, even though, creating it and speaking about it, he is a paragon of controlled rigor, continuously working. When we spoke, he preparing for a major retrospective at the Haus der Kunst in Munich in May and thinking about an upcoming commercial show. “Nature & Politics” would be traveling to the St. Louis Art Museum in the fall. He was, at least, traveling less, he said, because he was overseeing the construction of a small building—a home and studio—in the Lake District near Berlin.
Last January, Struth and his wife sold an apartment they had in Manhattan, parting with the city that he first visited as a young man, in the late 1970s, photographing the quiet, deserted streets of SoHo to make one of his first major series. But he has remained engaged with the city. For a project the New York Times Magazine published in June, he went to the tops of various skyscrapers around town, like Hudson Yards, the Met Life Building, and others.
At the new World Trade Center, he said, he had planned to create a picture for “Nature & Politics,” letting that gargantuan structure sit alongside other feats of engineering in the series. There are no railings on the building’s metal halo, which sits at about 1,400 feet, so he had to be rigged to the structure with cables. The photo that appeared in the magazine is stunning, showing the building’s roof as a kind of amphitheater or panopticon. (Struth referred to it as a “coliseum” in the story.) But it wasn’t the image he wanted. “I didn’t like the position, or it somehow stayed a little too journalistic in a way,” he told me, still sounding a bit disappointed. “It didn’t transgress on a different level.”