– By Sabrina Y. Smith
One of the world’s most respected photographers, Thomas Struth, is widely known for his family portrait works. Over the past 30 years, he has photographed over 60 families in 10 countries — every one of them is different and unique, yet they all share a universal quality.
What does Struth attempt to capture when he assembles a family portrait? What would have been some of his strongest creative influences while he approaches such an intimate, yet common imagery? How does the artist himself — who has seen and captured more family dynamics than anyone else — define family?
© Courtesy of Thomas Struth, “The Consolandi Family”, Milan, 1996
“First of all you cannot choose your parents or the people who made you. You’re the result. You cannot choose the time or location where you’re born, your language, or your personality or the reason for it,” states Thomas Struth.
Thomas Struth was born to Gisela Struth, a ceramic potter, and Heinrich Struth, a bank director, in Geldern, Germany. Thomas was an observant child who has always been interested in art. He took his first ‘intentional’ photograph at the age of 17 — to be used as a model for his oil painting at the time. This was to be the first one of many photographs to come, and a new trajectory for the artist.
Painting, music, and psychology have all been strong influences in shaping Thomas Struth’s work.
While painting was his main focus when he was studying at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, his interest in photography quickly grew from it. Painting taught him how to photograph, prompting him to acutely understand composition, which he explains “ultimately defines the hierarchy of the elements in the photograph and their meaning.” As his paintings became both more realistic and figurative, he found photography to be a faster medium that allowed him to “connect more with the outside world.”
© Courtesy of Thomas Struth, “Drammen 1”, Oslo, 2001
And while photography is the most fitting medium for Struth’s interests and creative path, he admits it has its downfalls: “photography has the disadvantage of being a very flat picture that doesn’t have the essential qualities that painting or sculpture have.”
It is thus not surprising that Struth’s photography work was deeply influenced by an array of talented painters and sculptors. However, beyond the craft itself (each medium has its own limitations), it is these artists’ work ethic and process that has greatly inspired the photographer.
Notably, from his time studying under Gerhard Richter, he recalls: “When I was a student I worked sometimes at [Richter’s] studio for different things: mounting photographs or building a shelf or something like that (…) [Richter] was very invested, emotionally and intellectually but also his work process – which entailed a series of very interesting logistics of development – (…) was an extremely accurate practice. He was emotionally involved but unsentimental. I found that striking.”
© Courtesy of Thomas Struth, “Pergamon Museum 1”, Berlin, 2001
© Courtesy of Thomas Struth, “Museo del Prado 7”, Madrid, 2005
In some way the tables had turned, and the teacher was now giving homage to the student. Struth comments: “Twenty years ago I was a teacher myself and it’s difficult to get over that initial relationship. Even when you are older (I am now 60), every time I meet him [Richter], I’m always a former student of his. I just think it’s a natural thing. (…) Nobody stops being a student, and when you get old you have to learn not to be old. It’s different phases: you always come into different territories that you don’t know much about, and then you study how to deal with them.”
While having one of the most well-known artists as a mentor may have impacted Thomas Struth, he states the names of the widely unknown as the most influential people in his life, and work: his family.
When asked whom he considers family: Struth doesn’t limit it to the choice-less group we are born into. He speaks of his “chosen family”: those that you build a relationship with, such as his Dusseldorf family, a group of unconventional people who he could relate to with a kinship quality. He adds: “I think the chosen family is rare.”
© Courtesy of Thomas Struth, “The Faletti Family”, Florence, 2005
Along the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, he also mentions an unconventional high school art teacher who had also attended the Academy. He saw my talent and he appreciated when I did something unusual. He was a very early supporter of my work.” Struth also expresses gratitude for the long time support given by his close art family: his gallerists, Marian Goodman and Max Hetzler. Those are all members of what he considers his family, whom all have the love and pursuit of art as their driving force.
Beyond the influences of these various visual artists, a less obvious yet important creative inspiration for the photographer has been music – the perfect medium of knowledge and instinct. Struth played the saxophone for numerous years; and even though he has put the instrument down since the late eighties, it is still an “important thing [for him] to be close to music.” Music has taught him a lot about composing: “the weight of introduction – the things I like best is when I do a body of work and then show them, install them in a space and work on how they can be read (…): the multiple composition of narrative that works best in a given space. That is very influenced by musical thinking.”
© Courtesy of Thomas Struth, “Pond”, Anaheim California, 2013
Finally, psychology is a core element in Struth’s work: understanding ourselves, our relationships, and by extension our human existence. Whether he is photographing an urban landscape, a family portrait, or the jungles of Asia, he is in constant search of the meaning of our human dynamics and motivations (with ourselves, each other, nature or technology).
Struth explains: “I have a strong awareness of psychological problems in our existence: it’s part of the modern world. The awareness of that is not so new when you read Tolstoy or read the Japanese of the 16th century. Psychology is very acute — it is a principal of study of the mind. It’s maybe not a coincidence that photography was invented around the same time when psychology became a more scientific discipline.”
One of Struth’s most influential mentors and long-time friend is Ingo Hartmann, a German psychologist who he met in the early eighties. Hartmann was the first to spark Struth’s interest in family portraits. The psychologist started collecting and analyzing his patients’ family portraits to give him potential insight into their past dynamics and current behaviors. The idea was that these photographs contained a number of useful indications concerning the behavior and relationships in a family.1 When Hartmann shared this with Struth, the photographer was immediately drawn to participate in the research process, putting together a collection of various family portraits. However, it was not until a few years later that Struth took his first family portrait. This first portrait in 1985, of artist Alan Johnston and his family in Edinburgh subsequently exhibited, was initially made as a gift. What started off as a “thank you” gesture to a friend set off one of Struth’s most important and on-going series.
© Courtesy of Thomas Struth, “Pharmaceutical Packaging”, Laboratories Phoenix, Buenos Aires, 2009
© Courtesy of Thomas Struth, “Milan Cathedral (façade)”, Milan, 1998
What Hartmann was attempting to do with his patients may have been what also motivated Struth: understanding his own family. In a conversation with Gil Blank, originally published in the Whitewall magazine (vol. 6) in 2007, Struth stated: “The family unit is the elementary social structure, it sets part of the patterns for how you behave in life, where you learn your first steps as a social being.” 2
There is good reason for that curiosity. His parents had grown up during the Nazi Germany. The sore subject remained heavily present through the absence of its discussion, and the true knowledge and responsibility of their actions during that time. Struth had confided to Gil Blank again : “With my family portraits, I try to examine the transition between the subjective/personal and the historical/political dimensions.” 2
Struth explains that his family portrait work, similar to music composition and playing an instrument requires a particularly and acutely “reading, calculating and interpreting very quickly.” The choice of the families he photographs, the homes, their positioning — whether to have them sit or stand or both, smile or not, include the dog or not, etc — all have to be meticulously considered.
© Courtesy of Thomas Struth, “Ulsan 2”, Ulsan, 2010
Like psychology, even though the photographer only has a split moment to analyze what a therapist could take years to come to find, there is an intuitive reading of the situation at hand.
In the portrait of the Consolandi family from Milan (1996), the elderly (grandfather) and the youth (grandchildren) are sitting together at the center of the photograph. The other members of the family, the brother, sister and respective partners, are on the side standing straight like pillars of the family structure. There is a conservative and serious atmosphere underlined by the distance between each family member and their stern facial expressions. The room they are photographed in is vast and well ordered with framed artworks carefully arranged, giving a sense of control and a hint of their higher social economic status.
In contrast, in the portrait of the Falletti family of Florence (2005), the mother is the only person standing, with a strong, yet relaxed posture and a hospitable smile. She seems to carry the weight of the family proudly while the two young men and woman (whom we assume are her sons and daughter) are sitting by her side. The environment is warm and colorful; the room chosen is filled with artifacts and various furniture that evokes eastern cultures (perhaps hinting at a well-traveled or open-minded/curious household), and decorative art: home that seems full of life and movement.
Struth explains: “It’s [an] evaluation of meaning — possible meanings that change according to the surrounding (…) a very precise weighing of different composition ingredients.”
While everyone has or creates a family, the photographer has discovered — through his on-going family portrait project — that the idea of “normality” in family bonds and structure is a mere illusion. A difference within each family is a strong commonality.
© Dan Hirsch. Courtesy of Thomas Struth
Struth states: “(…) in making family portraits I was seeking something like an emblematic platform for a play of thought about something common that we all share. Even if you look at the narratives of families as different as from, let’s say, Ghana, Finland, Mongolia, or Germany, the fact of a family dynamic built through a history of generations is a shared experience.” 2
“Family is your fate.” It is an “epic” and universal theme.