What draws me from the Spring of Somerset to the smoke of London? Among the photographs Struth is exhibiting is a series of landscape images from the Israeli border and it is these that are of special interest to me since they relate to the course while I have also visited Israel in the past. Of course, these are photographs from what was once known as The Holy Land which has been photographed since the early days of photography, notably the journey made by a young Prince Edward who was accompanied by the photographer Francis Bedford. However, the context here is very different as it is the menacing sense of conflict that dominates Struth’s photographs rather than religious idealism conveyed by photographs revealing places associated with Christ.
Of his work, I find myself drawn to Museum Photographs which, as the title suggests, are of museums and the people who visit them in particular their viewing of these works of art if they may be referred to as such.
An article from The Guardian contains some interesting comments from Struth who talks about constructing his photographs before he goes out to shoot so that they are an expression of what’re he wants to convey. There is mention of his “quiet alertness” that also permeates his work; Struth has been a Tai Chi practitioner for nearly 20 years.
The photographs are on show in a smart Central London gallery; they almost look small against the gaping space of the white walls. These are no captions but one can pick up an A4 print out if one wants to contextualise the images which are reflective compositions. This have been planned beforehand even if room has been left for the chance occurrence such as a woman who walks into a towering landscape of Jerusalem where the hills are covered with houses. There is a similar view of this city where a street ends with heavily barred and locked metallic gate.
This exhibition contains work from more than one project and hence it is not clear whether there is a theme running through it. My interest, as previously stated, is the Israeli landscapes; what the photographer is saying here is unclear but the images are not inviting though neither are they intimidating preferring to show the architecture rather than any signs of violence. This is a different way of looking at the place rather than that preferred by the media who often provide little context for the scenes they show just violent action. Is Struth showing us what The Holy Land, as it is known by Christians, looks like now?
Amongst these cityscapes, are photographs of small scale industrial interiors. I am unaware of the context here but these highly defined images of metal and other substances are immaculately photographed and one can be drawn into the intricacy of the compositions. There is a seemingly endless array of detail which does not appear to be leading the eye anywhere with the eye finding no place to rest and so continuing to explore the expanse contained within the frame.
The gallery is impressive, it’s large rooms echoing the huge photographs hung on it’s white walls. The feeling of uncontained space is relaxing although it is of course actually contained since ceilings as well as floors and walls are there. For awhile, I am nevertheless transported unaware that Central London is buzzing around me until the smell of paint reminds of where I am; walking up the staircase I smell the wood from which it is made.
Upstairs, there are more images of Israel, some of which do address the conflict there, that has been going on for literally ages. There is one landscape from the border that shows direct traces of conflict in the foreground presence of some kind of bunker. There is only one room upstairs and one can sit on a chair in the centre and look around at the images on the walls.
The black and white, an interior of a church, catches my eye as the interior suddenly reveals a painting in the background beyond the towering masonry and dimly lit stone walls. The scene is not surprisingly a religious one and pictures three haloed male figures holding on to a haloed body wrapped in cloth that they carry.
Inspecting the photographs more closely does make more information available yet while the eye is encouraged to roam, there is no obvious meaning to these images. They remain hard to define yet are more than mere representations. There may however be some detail that draws the eye such as a minaret that reminds one of the religious ferment dominating this area or a lone leafless tree jutting up from a pond around which rubble lies.
There is a Jewish family, recognisable by the small hats on their heads, sitting on the steps of a house, looking intently at the photographer, some smiling. Struth has done a series of photographs around the family.
One photograph here does reveal destruction as an actual occurrence rather than a brooding presence. The photographer has shot from the interior of a damaged building. One column is bent and beside it is a large angular block of concrete rests partially suspended; column and hanging concrete look precariously balanced. There is graffiti on the walls.
Many of these images can be examined at length to allow further meanings to emerge and yet they are also there to delight the eye, perhaps not immediately but soon after as the eye is allowed to roam.
Upstairs, there is another dead end street; this looks like it could be the final image just as the other was the first!? The suggestion is of a conflict that has no apparent end.
Could there then be a sequence in this exhibition rather than just a juxtaposition of images? Time to look around with less focus on the individual images. There seems to be no obvious sequence and there is not as Struth tells me in a brief meeting after his talk. The gallery guide, an A4 print out, says nothing about the sequence although it does frame the context of what is essentially two bodies of work being shown together; there are the images from Israel that skirt around the conflict suggestively and the high-tech interiors from different places.
The essence of this exhibition is however noted in a statement made by Struth; “my exploration was about observing the human drama and what seems to touch me most. In essence, it was about the reading of the signifiers and the pictorial possibilities of the place.” In brief, Struth was eschewing the colossal for the personal and the “challenge of how to condense an epic narrative into a still image “
He also comments on landscape … “You can only look at landscape as a potential location for human experience … a landscape doesn’t need me, you or anybody. It becomes interesting if it can be the ground plan for human experience, projection or desire.”
After seeing the exhibition, I walk down to Piccadily and into Waterstones bookshop for a bite to eat before the talk by Thomas Struth. It is free and we are offered a glass of wine!
Struth talks slowly, there are gaps in his speech, and what he says is largely initiated by Simon Baker from the Tate; Struth has a neutral approach to his subject and yet his photographs are highly charged.
Struth talks about his experience of photographing in Israel. He did not take a lot of photographs eventually selecting 19 (of which 15 are in the exhibition) from about 50; the photographer Giles Peres worked for much longer in Israel and took many more photographs but is said not to have really found what he was looking for. Another artist who was also invited to Israel to make work was Jeff Wall.
Struth does not smile but looks as though he has a great sense of humour. He talks about his method not just the technical aspect but also the way he plans ahead.
I meet him briefly afterwards when I get a copy of his book signed. He had described the way in which he hung his nearby exhibition; this was done by placing the works in relation to the space they occupied. Nevertheless, I had noticed the possibility of a sequence and so mentioned this to him. He considered it for a moment and said “maybe this was a result of intuition!” and thanked me for bringing it up.
I left feeling that Struth is not really a thinker; he probably does not spend too much time in analysing preferring to express his vision through his art.
The book contains the photographs that were in the exhibition, an amalgamation of two bodies of work; photographs made in Israel and Palestine, part of the “This Place” project that features some of the best photographers in the world as well as another body of work made around places of scientific and technological research in California. These bodies of work do not seem to relate to each other, the Californian images understating the emotive qualities of the Israeli/Palestinian ones; the A4 gallery print out informs the viewer that the Californian technological images “enforce both their reading as two versions of a seemingly indissoluble conflict “.