Thomas Struth: Composing Pictures

Thomas Struth is an exceptional photographer. His pictures form a diverse group of works, that have earned him international fame. We had the opportunity to meet Thomas Struth in his new studio in Berlin. This is the conversation that took place.

Q: You are one of the most renowned photographers worldwide and many of your pictures are treasured objects in the art market. Among your famous works are your pictures of visitors in museums who look intensely at the exhibited paintings. How did this project come about?

A: I have always been interested in art. For many years before I became a photographer painting had been my sole means of artistic expression. As a pupil I spent a lot of time in museums such as the Museum Ludwig in Cologne. I had always been interested not only in the conditions under which artist produced their works, but also in the way these works are exhibited in museums and in their way of survival. My intention had been to capture, by means of photography, the way people react on the paintings, their historical entrenchment in museums, and the reception of the works in the rather awe-inspiring atmosphere of institutionalised museums. During a stay in Naples in 1988 where I had contact with conservators, I came back to the issue of painting. Also at that time museums had started to buy photographs of mine. At the end of the 1980s, the first new museum buildings were erected, and museums became much more of a tourist destination than ever before. From this context the idea was born to show a journey through time by establishing a connection between the topics of the paintings, the artists who had made their artistic statements in them, the visitors looking at them and me whose photographs are again exhibited in galleries.

Q: How do you achieve the tension, the almost tangible fascination your pictures convey?

A: I am rather considerate and precise in choosing my subjects, very analytical in preparing the photo shoots and extremely sensitive during the shootings. But the editing process is, of course, also of great importance, deciding which picture is the right one.

Q: How do you prepare for new projects and how long is the preparation process?

A: That is quite different with individual projects. As I very seldom accept commissions, my preparation always starts with the question of which subject I am interested in, which subject I would like to engage with photographically. When I was working on the jungle subject, my intention had been to create pictures with a rather complex composition, pictures that would take some time to view and understand. As I then considered shootings in forests, it became clear to me very soon that jungles would be the only possible locations. Within a period of more than ten years, I had photographed jungles in Australia, in the Americas, in Japan and in China. There are 35 pictures in this series, taken from 1995 to 2008. As you see, projects take a very long preparation time to develop.

Q: Since 2008 you have concerned yourself with rather fundamental subjects like globalisation and industrialisation. How did this come about?

A: It is important to always turn to new areas of work, in order to develop in one’s life. The technology pictures were born from the desire to unveil places in which things of enormous influence on us are being developed while we never physically reach these places. We get in a car, we open the refrigerator’s without ever being aware of the origin of the materials processed in these objects, of the enormous amount of steel for instance that must be produced at facilities like ThyssenKrupp in Duisburg-Bruckhausen.

Q: The portrait you made of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip on the occasion of her diamond crown jubilee anniversary as Queen stands in the tradition of your series of family portraits that has also become very famous.

A: In January, I received a call by Paul Moorhouse, the curator of the National Portrait Gallery in London. For the Queen’s 60th crown jubilee, an exhibition was planned showcasing portrait photographs from all years of her regency. I was asked to take a new double portrait that would be displayed at the end of the exhibition. Since my aptness for photographing celebrities is rather little indeed, I told them I would need a few days to consider the proposal. In the end, I could not withstand the challenge and began to make intense preparations. The photograph was taken in April.

Q: … which has proven again your creativity and precision. Was the court open to your ideas?

A: Yes, to a large extent. Of course, the time I had for taking the picture was limited. In Windsor Castle, I had three rooms to my disposal and I decided in favour of the Green Drawing Room. Furthermore, I decided on the Queen’s dress and gave a few hints to Prince Philip about how to dress. I had long discussion with the Queen and her advisor on her pearl necklace about whether it should be composed of three strains or only of one. It was a very fascinating shoot indeed!

Q:  What was your first thought when, in February 2011, a picture of yours – your self-portrait in front of Albrecht Dürer’s famous self-portrait – was sold at Sotheby’s in an auction at a price of 502,000 Euros?

A: Well, I felt a certain satisfaction. The prices in galleries and auctions are of course prone to great fluctuations. As a matter of fact, the auction price must be assessed within the context of the entire art world – and yet, it was a justified one for this picture.

Q: For some months, you have now been using the Leica S2. What is your impression?

A: After these months, I am still very enthusiastic about this camera. It is a magnificent device. I am glad that Leica has developed the S-system which has, as far as I know, performed very well in the market, and rightly so.

Thomas Struth, thank you very much!

-Leica Internet Team

You can read also read this interview with Thomas Struth in the original German.