In the tradition of the Düsseldorf school of photography, Thomas Struth’s works tend to impress first with their scale, then with their perplexing, sometimes banal scenes. His images are often more emblematic of an idea than they are about the apparent subject in the image.
His exhibition at the High Museum through January 8, Nature & Politics, features work from the past 10 years. Co-organized by four institutions – Museum Folkwang in Essen, Martin-Gropius Bau in Berlin, the High, and the St. Louis Art Museum – the show contains 30 photographs of seemingly unrelated subjects, from Disneyland to a plasma physics lab, which often share unexpected visual or thematic qualities.
In a 2013 series of photographs, a beautiful desertscape and ominous cavern turn out to be the Cars and Raiders of the Lost Ark attractions at Disneyland in California. According to Struth, the subject in this case is the ambiguity of what is real and what is fake. A few galleries away are photographs of very real landscapes in contested areas in Israel and Palestine, providing a stark contrast in ideas of authenticity.
Struth’s projects often require a lot of advance preparation to obtain access and permission, including from doctors and patients in a handful of photos taken at Charité Hospital in Berlin. Figure II, Charité, Berlin, 2013, is an unnerving scene of a prepped and anesthetized patient about to undergo brain surgery, her body engulfed by wires, tubes, and monitors. In this case, Struth actually met with the patient and ultimately agreed to cover some of her medical costs. In this image, human vulnerability and innovation collide in an uncertain arena of life and death.
Struth sees a similar vulnerability in the 2008 photograph of a space shuttle repair bay at Cape Canaveral. Where many might see only machinery and workers dwarfed by technology, Struth sees evidence of the human touch in handwritten notations left by the crews on damaged tiles.
The large striking photograph Aquarium, Atlanta (2013) is reminiscent of Struth’s early museum series in its observational perspective – looking at people who are themselves in the act of looking. Commissioned by the High Museum, the picture was taken at the Georgia Aquarium. A group of young children and their parents stand in front of a room-size fish tank filled with colorful fish swimming around and amid the fake coral. As natural coral reefs die off because of global warming and human intervention, this scene may become more real than surreal. That tension between natural and artificial, human and machine, is what Struth’s work is about.