Review – Thomas Struth

Thomas Struth (b 1954)

For this review I have tried to find photos made by Struth that I haven’t seen reviewed by other Foundations in Photography students. This is so that I can keep my initial thoughts as my own. However I am going to start with one portrait that I have seen reviewed by others because it is highly relevent to exercise 3.10 A Formal Portrait.

The Late Giles Robertson (with Book), Edinburgh 1987 1987 by Thomas Struth born 1954Fig. 1. The Late Giles Robertson (with book) Edinburgh (1987)

Initial thoughts:- I like, grace, calm, dignity, poise. It captures thoughtfulness, contemplation, a good example of how to capture a still portrait with a busy background. This is done by making use of the space in the foreground, the thoughtful expression, the side lighting from the window, shot in daylight so the background remains subdued, small aperture, distance between subject and background. The ‘props’ do not appear to be staged, they are what Robertson has gathered over his lifetime, things he values, and maybe some things that he has inherited. A man who values ‘things’ because of their emotional connection to events and people, memories. Dressed quite formally, smoking jacket? tie, very natural in them, this is his style of dress, smart, traditional. He has a heritage that is upper-middle class? Upper class? Old money. Culture and art are valued, and the landscape appears to be Constable or Gainsborough but I cannot be sure of this.

There is symbolism in relation to the depiction of age, the old way, and possibly a representation that the traditional life and values are ageing and will soon be lost. But I believe that is a minor consideration and Robertson’s values and character are more important to both the subject and photographer.

 

Hannah Erdrich-Hartmann and Jana-Maria Hartmann, Düsseldorf 1987 1987 by Thomas Struth born 1954Fig. 2. Hannah Erdich-Hartman and Jana-Maria Hartman, Dusseldorf (1987)

Initial thoughts:- Mixed thoughts about this, soft focus and large aperture (maybe even a photographic background) create an image of love, tenderness and gentleness. The position of the girl’s arm around her mothers neck and Jana-Maria’s hair also add to that sense. Jana-Maria’s expression changes between warmth and a touch annoyed/questioning, and Hannah’s expression is almost a challenge to the photographer and viewer. Dianne Arbus often forced her subjects frustration by delaying pressing the shutter so that people would eventually let go of the mask the ywant to present so tha the real self was revealed. In this photo it appears that Struth has done the same. Although I don’t consider this to be a formal portrait, and there is a tension between flattering and challenging, I wanted to include this photo because it presents a challenge to me with regard to reading and understanding it. It’s also of a different style than the other images that I’m including in this review. I feel that I am walking away from this photo confused.

Kyoko and Tomoharu Murakami, Tokyo 1991 1991 by Thomas Struth born 1954Fig. 3. Kyoko and Tomoharu Murakami, Tokyo (1991)

Initial thoughts:- There is something about this particular photo that I find appealing, although I cannot put my finger on it, especially considering that I do not find emotion within the photo. There is a gulf between husband and wife, and I get the inkling that this was shot in a place of work, probably outside of the home due to the size. I am viewing this photo from and Western European background, and there maybe cultural differences and formalities that are hard for me to fully comprehend, and I say this in response to my perceived lack of emotion and a formality that borders on rigidity. I find the light very interesting. There is more than one window in this room, and it/they are large. I don’t see obvious signs of flash and the light coming through the window is bright daylight. The only apparent prop is the chair, so that the woman can sit down. The chair doesn’t fit in with the desk/work bench. On second thoughts there is a space on this side of the bench that would give her space to work whilst having the direct light from the window. The combination of vertical/horizontal and diagonal lines may symbolise structure, a structured and organised lifestyle reflective of the wider community?

 

The Shimada Family, Yamaguchi, Japan 1986 1986 by Thomas Struth born 1954Fig. 4. The Shimada Family, Yamaguchi, Japan 1986

Initial thoughts:- Is this a formal or informal family portrait? Do I understand formal group portraits outside of a studio or wedding? Can a formal portrait include people in various degrees of relaxation and formality? Is this merely a reflection of the characters of people who are of different generations to each other?

I enjoy the composition of the family and the lines they are placed in take me backwards and forwards between the people. No one individual stands out and this means that the photo brings the family together as a group, a collective, despite the space between them. I’m quite impressed with that actually. My knowledge of group portraits is of the tradition British style of everyone being close together. This is a pleasing and comfortable photograph to look at, and I find the contrast between this grouping and the group photo’s that I am used to to be quite refreshing.

I also like the contrast between the grey rocks and green shrubs/bushes. A planned/formal/structured garden that represents prosperity. Although I say garden (and I mean the garden of the family’s home when I do), it could be a formal community garden/park/or visitor attraction. I am still more inclined to think that this is their garden and the live on the edge of the suburbs or a rural community (maybe I’m just and old romantic at heart).

The colours and tone of the clothing provide a contrast with the garden and this brings out the people as subject. The trees that form the background keep my eye within the photo and they act as a frame. No use of props, and none required.

Reflections

Four completely different styles of portrait from one photographer. Struth clearly is a people person and he either spends the time tgetting to know the people who he shoots so that he can bring out their personality, or he already knows them. Despite the styles being different between the four photo’s, the similarity is the capture of character. There are very few signs of props, and this is worth remembering, subtlety is paramount. Getting to know people is important as is liking people, in a general way. You may not necessarily like or know someone enough to like in order to make formal photographs, but there must be a genuine value of other. If portrait photography is undertaken without this then its going to come through and will over ride the  individuals character.

Clothing is important for two reasons, it signifies personality and individuality, and if the clothing is not what the subject is comfortable with then it will be hard for them to relax. This made me think of the photographer Rankin and his work with charities.

He uses a team of lighting, make-up, fashion, studio and design staff with clients who use of charities for support. He meets his clients in his studio on the day that he shoots them (sometimes over a couple of days). He brings out the best in these people, and some of whom really struggle with self-image and self esteem. In my opinion he is a genius and I envy and admire his sense of humour and the ability to create a strong rapport with people very quickly, in what is a very strange and difficult environment to be photographed in. Having a large range of clothing and accessories gives his clients the opportunity to look good and to find an outfit that they feel comfortable in, but his personality is the glue that brings the very best out of people. Maybe working with a background team ensures that he can spend his time creating a relationship with the person he is going to photograph.

Illustrations

Figure 1 Struth, T; 1987; The Late Giles Robertson (with book) Edinburgh [colour on paper]; AT: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/struth-the-late-giles-robertson-with-book-edinburgh-1987-p77746 (accessed on 24/05/2018)

Figure 2 Struth, T; 1987; Hannah Erdich-Hartman and Jana-Maria Hartman, Dusseldorf  [black and white on paper]; AT: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/struth-hannah-erdrich-hartmann-and-jana-maria-hartmann-dusseldorf-1987-p77747 (accessed on 24/05/2018)

Figure 3 Struth, T; 1991; Kyoko and Tomoharu Murakami, Tokyo [colour on paper]; AT: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/struth-kyoko-and-tomoharu-murakami-tokyo-1991-p77751 (accessed on 24/05/2018)

Figure 4 Struth, T; 1986; The Shimada Family, Yamaguchi, Japan [colour on paper]; AT: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/struth-the-shimada-family-yamaguchi-japan-1986-p77745 (accessed on 24/05/2018)

Feature Image Rankin; 2016; Here as I am (pic 20); AT: http://rankin.co.uk/portfolio-charities/#/pic20 (accessed on 24/05/2018)

References

Rankin; Online AT: http://rankin.co.uk/portfolio-charities/#/pic0 (accessed on 24/05/2018)

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