– Autumn/Winter 2001

Wondering About Struth

Shepherd Steiner

Thomas Struth, Giles Robertson (With Book), Edinburgh, 42 x 58 cm, colour, 1987.  Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery

Thomas Struth, Giles Robertson (With Book), Edinburgh, 42 x 58 cm, colour, 1987. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery

O my friends, there is no friend.1

Something strange happens when one becomes involved with the work of Thomas Struth. In looking at and studying this photography one becomes more and more convinced of its sincerity and truth. Trust grows, and especially in the portraits, friendships are made. Instead of highlighting something like mediation, which has become a critical byword of late, Struth's photography turns on a natural and almost living connection between form and content. Moreover, rather than undermining what adequation there might be between form and content, serious and sustained involvement with Struth's photography enhances and builds upon this identification. One is tempted to say that the narrative engineered upon first encounter with Struth's work is progressively rounded out in encounters thereafter, so much so that soon one is confronting the likes of an old friend or favourite haunt.

Take a work like Giles Robertson, Edinburgh 1987. If awkward at first, narrative inches ever closer to the beautiful. What communicative potential possessed by the portrait inevitably opens up to further dialogues and deeper, more intimate bonds. A lunch-time meal has just been cleared, a stain still marks the table. A favourite book is brought out to end the fumbling. Can you see it? A whole life is revealed: a life of learning and urbanity, of the most gracious kind of bourgeois civility. If you are lucky, such narration is helped along by the individual sitters themselves, or someone else who simply knows the story or the circumstances surrounding a life lived, or an afternoon many years ago. If not, then the kind of storytelling that ideally surrounds Struth's photography is limited to

  1. Michel de Montaigne, The Essays, quoted in Jacques Derrida, Politics of Friendship, London: Verso, 1997, p.1

  2. See Paul de Man, 'Form and Intent in the American New Criticism', in Blindness and Insight, Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983, pp.20-35

  3. See Paul de Man, 'Sign and Symbol in Hegel's Aesthetics', Aesthetic Ideology, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987, p.95

  4. Rodolphe Gasché's summation of the argument is precise: 'At the very moment when philosophy reaches a certain fulfillment of its goal in a type of philosophy in which perhaps the most systematic layout of the totality of all thinkable differences is achieved - in Hegel's philosophy - German Romanticism paradoxically is sketching a retrogression toward rhetoric.' R. Gasché, The Wild Card of Reading: On Paul de Man, op. cit., p.51

  5. P. de Man, 'Sign and Symbol in Hegel's Aesthetics', op. cit., p.96

  6. P. de Man, 'Sign and Symbol in Hegel's Aesthetics', op. cit., p.100

  7. See Stephen Greenblatt, Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World, London: Clarendon Press, 1991

  8. See Kiyoshi Okutsu's succinct discussion of this in Kiyoshi Okutsu, 'Photography as Tautegory', in Parkett, no.50/51, 1997, pp.146-49

  9. See Paul de Man's Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke and Proust, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986

  10. John Llewelyn, 'On the Saying that Philosophy Begins in Thaumazein', in Andrew Benjamin (ed.), Post-Structuralist Classics, London: Routledge, 1988, p.185

  11. Ibid., p.174

  12. Thomas Struth, House, Street, Individual, Group, Yamaguchi-shi: Gallery Shimada, 1991

  13. See Richard Senett, 'Recovery: The Photography of Thomas Struth', in Thomas Struth: Strangers and Friends, Photographs 1986-1992, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994, pp.97-8

  14. See Jacqueline Lichtenstein, The Eloquence of Color: Rhetoric and Painting in the French Classical Age, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993, p.75

  15. Bryson argues for the 'insistent diagonal' in Struth's work. N. Bryson, 'Not Cold, Not too Warm', op. cit., p.158 23.

  16. See Hans Betting, 'Photography and Painting: Thomas Struth Museum Photographs', in Thomas Struth, Museum Photographs, Munich: Schirmer/Mosel, 1998, p.18-19

  17. In Norman Bryson's account Struth's photography is 'a question of a certain kind of temperature of viewing, not too cold, nor too warm.' Norman Bryson, 'Not Cold, Not too Warm: The Oblique Photography of Thomas Struth', Parkett, no.50/51, 1997, p.158

  18. In addition to there being a number of very different portraits of both Giles and his wife Eleanor Robertson from the same sitting, Struth describes the collaborative aspect, 'the lengthy preparations', 'the invitations and counter-invitations' extending over a two year period in interview. See 'Interview Between H. D. Buchloh and Thomas Struth' in Portraits: Thomas Struth, Düsseldorf: Wintersheidt, 1990, p.29

  19. Peter Schjeldahl, 'Epiphany', in Parkett, no.50/51, 1997, p.168

  20. James Lingwood, 'Open Vision', in Parkett, no.50/51, 1997, p.138

  21. Rodolphe Gasché clarifies what is at stake in this Hegelian notion. He writes: 'Throughout (Hegel's) Aesthetics the term symbolic designates that particular form of art in which the content, because it is still entirely abstract, stands in a relation of total inadequacy to its material form... Indeed, rather than stressing its etymological meaning as falling into one, or as throwing together, Hegel emphasizes the contents inadequacy to its form and thus reduces the relation on which the symbol is based to that of a mere search for a mutual affinity between meaning and form... As soon as full adequacy is achieved, the relation in question can no longer be termed "symbolic".' Rodolphe Gasché, The Wild Card of Reading: On Paul de Man, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998, pp.59-60

  22. J. Derrida, op. cit., p.8