Thomas Struth

Psychological Portraits

How credible are portraits? The question may sound simple, but is actually quite complex as it relates to both medium and subject matter. Portrait painting used to successfully depict the unmistakable individuality of a person. Yet it was an art form reserved for the privileged and affluent few. Photography offered an opportunity to identify a broad section of society’s personal reality. The discovery would have fulfilled a human dream had it not been for the fact that art “in the age of its technical reproducibility”, as Walter Benjamin calls it, soon maneuvered itself into a new corner. At the same time, the stringent concept of “individuality” began to fall apart. Physicist Ernst Mach reduced the subject to the point where sensory impressions converge. Poet Gottfried Benn claimed that we recognize the constancy of a person primarily by his clothing, “which lasts for ten years if the fabric is good,” and artist Robert Rauschenberg decreed programmatically: “If I declare it to be such, then this is a portrait.”

Thomas Struth only makes portraits of people he knows: individuals, couples, families. He photographs them in day light, using a bulky plate-back camera and long exposure times. The resulting photographs, for which the subjects have to remain patiently still, testify to a sensitive treatment of the subject. Struth chooses this antiquated method because it spawns portraits of unusual psychological depth. The people whom he ‘photo-copies’, often in their homes or working environments, appear serious and concentrated. They gaze baldly into the camera, their gestures bespeak privacy and intimacy. The precision of the prints makes us privy to details not usually perceptible in the fleeting casual glances typical of everyday vision. The serial nature of the works permits us to compare our views of people of different ages and cultural backgrounds.

Biographical information

1954

born in Geldern/ Niederrhein

1980

studied at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf under Peter Kleemann, painting under Gerhard Richter and photography under Bernd Becher

1996

professorship at the Staatlichen Hochschule für Gestaltung, Karlsruhe

lives and works in Düsseldorf