Dear Dave, presents:
Thomas Struth in Conversation with Gil Blank
Adapted from a live discussion held at the SVA Theatre in New York City on May 10, 2010
Gil Blank: We are starting tonight, in a certain sense, mid-conversation, because you and I first began speaking about some of these topics of mutual interest a few years ago. So to resume now, let’s begin with the 20 works in your current show at the Marian Goodman Gallery. Can you speak about what led you into the new work? Is it a new chapter and a new beginning, or a development of established motifs?
Thomas Struth: I started with this more than three years ago. It’s difficult to describe exactly what the initial vision was, but I think that what I photograph comes most of the time out of a desire to speak about something that is an important aspect of my life and the lives of people in general. To put it in a non-analytical manner, you could also say that I came out of the jungle, where I had been shooting my most recent photographs, New Pictures From Paradise, looked around, and tried to see what we’re doing here on the planet at this moment.
I consider myself a political person. My wife (who is American) and I follow politics in both Germany and the U.S. closely—we were very invested in the Obama campaign—and I try to remain engaged with what’s going on in our societies on many levels. For a long time, I have been asking myself why sizeable investments in natural science and technology can always be agreed upon, and achievements in this area seem rather easily accomplished as a result, while any breakthrough in social and political causes is so much harder to gain. This is saddening. Maybe the idea sounds naive, but I believe that art can question things from a perspective that’s broader than a discussion that might otherwise arise from, say, engineering or politics alone.
Further motivation that led to the new work resulted from my first visit to Korea in 2007. As one of the larger Asian cultures—and having been to both Japan and China many times myself—Korea remained a missing link in my work. The shipbuilding industries had left Germany and America in the 1970s and 1980s, gone for the most part to Korea. When planning my trip, I decided to visit one of the big shipyards, and was immediately struck by its dimension and by the daring scale of its operations.
Of course there are other photographers who have made pictures of large ships, of big industrial complexes, and so on, but I was still interested in trying to address the issues in my own way. The group of images continued to develop bit by bit, and I am still finding more and more places that are extremely curious and striking.
GB: We know the work you’ve done before, especially in built urban environments, but it does seem to me that what we’re looking at in the current work is distinct for several reasons. So I’d like to ask about each of those different aspects in turn. To begin with, much of it addresses the specific issue of technology, as opposed to industry in general, or the cityscape at large.
TS: On certain levels perhaps, but on the other hand, I do find some similarities with the street pictures I’ve made, and still occasionally make, because both represent certain cultural mindsets. At its foundation, it’s not such a new aspect of my practice, because I’m addressing subject matter known to people, even if they’ve neither been to these places nor seen these particular pictures. Achieving that sense of implicit familiarity is what I hoped for, and what I always try to do. There are some pictorial parallels as well. Some of the newer photographs share similar compositional structures with images I made in the jungle.
Documentation isn’t simply a matter of showing something as plainly and explicitly as possible, like “this is a plastic bottle, and not a dog.” it’s a question of how to articulate a social fabric in a still picture. The dynamic that I believe is similar in all of these pictures, for example, is that of social processes and economic interventions that inevitably have a very big effect on all of us, despite the fact that most individuals don’t have any immediate choice either for or against them.
GB: Because they’re the result of larger globalized forces of industry, and formations of capital?
TS: You could say that the pictures are representations of the separation of power, of the separateness from power.
GB: By which you mean manifestations of power that are separate from the everyday experience that the average person has in society?
TS: Yes. The sites are mostly invisible, and not accessible under regular circumstances. You can take a tour of Kennedy Space Center, but you’re never going to get access to the areas where a space shuttle is repaired, for instance. You might be able to see an oil rig if you’re on a cruise ship in the Baltic Sea or in the Gulf of Mexico, but you don’t get to see such things as they’re being made, and you won’t grasp their real dimensions because you’ll never get close enough.
GB: I think that speaks to how technological changes have dual manifestations in both industry and its representation.
For most of its existence, photography assumed the role of the direct material witness to history, and was alleged to be its guarantor. A picture of a shoe, or of a shoemaker, is identifiable and relatable because it shows something that we ourselves can see, and two twinned processes—two crafts—that we can understand: shoemaking, and the photography of shoemaking. This is the modernist ideal of photography that was once intended to essentialize the Victorian ideal of industry.
But I think one salient feature of these latest pictures is the question of how one might adequately depict the social dynamic of the techno-industrial. And I think that an adequate representation of the techno-industrial implies, perhaps paradoxically, the depiction of processes that are either not directly visible to the eye—like atomic particle acceleration—or, as you’ve asserted, that most of us would simply not have an immediate familiarity with. It’s a depiction of technology that is beyond traditional formations of industry because it is absent of direct human presence, and further, absent of the evidentiary links to what’s going on in the picture that we’ve come to expect from photography as a material vouchsafe. The kind of abstractions inherent to the technological subject matter you’ve chosen then parallel the similar end of photography itself as an analog, artisanal process.
Stellarator Wendelstein 7-X, Detail, Max Planck IPP, Greifswald (Germany), for example, thematizes that complete absence of the human hand in the single blue glove, presumably left behind by someone working on the apparatus depicted, but now gone. It’s by this indirect act of photographing things that are largely absent that I think you suggest a photography that is no longer an artisanal process, but what Boris Groys has called “the material body of the virtual”: which is to say, a photography that models the way that power and societies are indirectly structured now.
TS: I don’t know if I would put it in those words, but my desire would be that people recognize within the pictures that separateness from power, which I described before. To question our belief in natural sciences and technology as the dominant platform from which the improvement or betterment of human conditions are achieved, and about which I’m very doubtful.
GB: What I’m trying to resist though is to think of these images in strictly negative terms, as reflecting the idea that technology has completely overrun us, that it administers a society in which we have no effective agency as individuals. And yet, especially with the nearly universal advent of digital technology, many of our pictures are made by other people, by hands we don’t see, if not entirely by machine. Even if we resist the pessimistic view outright, does all photography now indirectly point to these absences regardless, or can it perhaps instead model the persistence of one implicit subjectivity: that of the photographer himself? That if in most examples of these images, we see a suggestion of the totalizing influence and power of technology, we might yet infer from their making an insistence upon the viability of the individual who now presents them to us?
TS: But that’s self-evident!
GB: Do you really think so? Because I don’t think we can in fact take that for granted.
TS: Well, at least it seems so to me. I think that many of these things aren’t entirely separable, because the picture-making practice is inevitably connected to the eye, and what you can see. It starts from that link, and only then becomes a matter of refining the image to the point that you can think to yourself, “Ok, now it’s what I want it to be.”
So it inevitably becomes a mixture of what you see, and the projection into the future of the transformation you would like to show. I want my pictorial imagery to maneuver around, and object to, the things it references. For example, I think of the abstract paintings of Barnett Newman or Mark Rothko, or even the color charts of Gerhard Richter, as functioning primarily as informational strategies created by those artists.
Of course my desire is always to activate something in the spectator. If you consider spectators not only as passive consumers, but as active participants in their own right, at the given moment in the continuous present time and space, it gives you a different historical responsibility and framework for your production. By which I mean that the relationship between the author and the viewer is a dialogue. I’m not interested in an image if the only response a spectator is likely to have would be along the lines of “oh, this beautiful picture…,” but then nothing else happens.
GB: Of course not, but I don’t know that we can simply presume that such an activation happens automatically. Traditionally, we considered documentary photography to serve a much more simple, or purely evidentiary role: as material evidence that the world is one way, and not another. Yet I don’t think anyone really considers your work in that way, as traditional documentary photography. I’m trying to excavate the reason for that difference in consideration: Is it merely a matter of timing, of your generation’s historical legacy, or is there something else, something fundamentally different about this particular work? Is there something here that works beyond the simpler purpose of evidentiary photographs?
TS: You could say that my goal was to address something that people know as an underlying, problematic current of our contemporary culture, even though they’ve never seen most of the places I show, nor other pictures of them. That’s not such a new or different aspect for me though, because I’ve always wanted to disclose things. A challenge is that the ongoing simplistic idea of documentation is of very limited use. It’s highly problematic for me.
GB: And so here of course is the heart of much of what we’re addressing: given the postwar German legacy, both in the widest social sense as well as in its various artistic responses, how does one attempt a valid photographic representation of subjectivity, of individual people and of their collective history? Of course that’s a rhetorical question, or at least I’d suggest that its only possible response is articulated within artistic activity itself.
You see what I’m driving at: I’m trying to detect if there is implicit in the formation of this latest chapter, either in the subject matter, or the way it’s being depicted, or in the organizational structure of the group overall and the way that it relates to similarly structured groups in the rest of the oeuvre, some kind of secondary or operational meaning that exceeds the purely pictorial mode that has for so long been ascribed to your work, and which accords more with the documentary tradition. My line of questioning does relate to the “activation” of the spectator that you mention, and to the legacies of conceptual and minimal art in general. But further, I think that there is something highly specific about photography’s role in that artistic realignment over the last 40 years, a history in which you—and the Bechers before you—played a pivotal role.
In terms of our current discussion then, and to turn my earlier question about negativity on its head, I’m trying to find out if there is instead maybe some kind of potentiality indicated in your pictures by their suggestion of digital technology, of virtual technologies, and of technologies that are beyond the human, and beyond immediate comprehension. Do they actually suggest something all the more indirect, something that maybe does not entirely condemn the infiltration of the social fabric by technological advances?
TS: No, because that would be a very strange position for me to take. But I think you could say that the work is a critique of a social process, of the mental identification with tools whose continuous development seem to promise a better future but divert us from other necessary, more radical transformations that are both personally and collectively difficult to bring about.
GB: Because the reckoning, implicit to the documentary act, however flawed or indirect, becomes its own social process?
TS: Hopefully. Hopefully.
GB: We’ve discussed in the past the resistance we both have to this paradigm of the series, so I know that you wouldn’t think about this current grouping of work in that way…
TS: No. I’ve always been very much against the word “series” in artistic production, because it suggests that every individual work within the group is of lesser value than the whole. In my perspective this is not true at all.
I felt somewhat liberated after having installed this exhibition at the Marian Goodman Gallery, because I think it’s had an even stronger impact than I first thought it might. This new range of subjects seems to me now a much more open field, partly because there’s a lot of things to discover that I haven’t touched upon yet. I also think that the questions within it are much more intensely felt by the people looking at the pictures—at least as far as I can judge now, a few days after the opening.
GB: How’s that?
TS: Well, because people seem to say, “I know this, I’ve sensed this conflict and I know this energy.” I always thought that since so many people live in cities and walk on the street every day, they would carry within them some potential for recognizing the narrative of my early work in their own lives, which I know happens. But it surprised me that these new pictures seem even more familiar to people than my photographs of streets.
This goes to the degree, for example, that someone at the exhibition yesterday, looking at Vehicle Assembly Building, Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, said to me that the interior reminded him of a prison, and I remembered that the building’s atmosphere had indeed originally attracted me for this very reason. A psychologically charged aspect of many places I found was the sense of entanglement: to be so entangled in a research or production process that you no longer have the distance to judge your actions, or what they mean for society, and it becomes a sort of prison.
I’m always interested in showing places or things that I feel are a part of everyone’s lives, at least in the western or the post-war society that we live in now. Of course that changes or transforms every 10 or 20 or 30 years, and there’s a different dynamic. Thirty years ago, for instance, the west wasn’t thinking so much about the Muslim world, or about the situations in Pakistan and Afghanistan which are now at the forefront of political conflicts and entanglement.
In general, I think that the speed of global transformation is accelerating—at least in the technological field. Unfortunately it’s not accelerating with similar improvements in the social field. There’s not more peace or agreement to be found in the political field.
GB: Over the last 40 years, we’ve seen the transformation of photography’s traditional status as a tool for social analysis. And of course that transformation has taken place, not coincidentally, precisely during the time that the artistic activity of your generation and your milieu has had its greatest visibility and impact. You yourself have said that photography has perhaps lost its traditional capacity, or its credibility as such.
You’ve also mentioned the way that social change, technological advances, and political disenfranchisement seems to be accelerating. Do you think then that photographic images now have some potential for facing the dimensions of spectacle, without automatically capitulating to it?
TS: I’ve long thought that people don’t read photographs as well as they should. Which seems bizarre to me, because beyond simple pictorial elements like subject and object, it’s also possible to see the attitude of the photographer—the intention or the strategy. It seems obvious to me that you should be able to read the photographer’s political position in a certain way, and that there should therefore be much more awareness about how photographs are constructed and used. These codes are embedded in the photograph, so it’s crucial to know how to read them, to be attuned to their intentionality, so that you feel if a photograph is set up, or staged, like any other form of propaganda.
I do think photography as a mechanical medium is beginning to lose its original function—in 20 or 30 years, we will look back and we will see how in this moment photography just expanded and became…
TS: …Well, partly spectacle, but it’s also still partly being used with other intentions. Some people use photography as spectacle, but then some people use photography like I do. You can’t say that contemporary photography has become spectacle simply because it’s big, but I do think anyone can see that some practices don’t fit within the kind of intentions I’ve been talking about.
GB: Yet the most prominent photography of the last twenty years, especially that which has been identified with the Düsseldorf legacy, seemed to blur the differences between social critique and social affirmation on a grand, cool scale.
TS: But, as I said, I think that the different intentions of the practice become ever more evident.
GB: So then you’re persisting in the belief that photography as a form of direct social witness, of social analysis, is viable…
TS: Well, I think that every photographic form, no matter how you present it, reflects a social position and dynamic. It’s inevitable, except maybe when you make a private picture, intended just for you and your family…but then even that contains a social statement, too. You cannot avoid it.
You could try to pretend otherwise, and send out a kind of invented coded signal. We’ve spoken before about the current trend towards abstract photography pursued by a younger generation; it reminds me of Otto Steinert and the abstract photography that surfaced in the 1950’s, because no one in Germany wanted to look at the effects of the Holocaust and address what was visible as a result all around them at the time.
Maybe another term we could use instead of social analysis or documentary would be “identity construction”: in other words, it’s an attempt to consider on what levels and by what means the contemporary identity is formed. I think what I photograph are various fields of influences that act either constructively or destructively upon each of our identities today, even though we are not always aware of them as such.
GB: This focus on the individual and his or her formation is crucial, I think. You do show a few people in these current images, so I wonder if there are choices you are making in this new group about the presence or absence of individuals.
TS: I think most of the photographs both in this group and those that i’ll take in the near future will be without people in them, because i’m more interested here in what people leave behind. The traces of energetic configurations of people’s minds and attitudes.
GB: We’re looking now at Space Shuttle 2, Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, 2008. Of the current group of photographs, this one probably has the most people in it, and moreover, as you’ve told me earlier, these people are each at work performing highly specialized manual labor on the shuttle, which in the picture, is this massive technological form, looming directly over their heads. Each of the tiles on it, for example, are individually handmade. One of the laborers seems to be making hand notations on the body of the shuttle, while others are performing small, individual fixes, and so on. So I inevitably return to these questions about craft, labor, and the individual. Is it fair enough to say though that this is an exceptional picture from the rest?
TS: Yes, it is. To see the space shuttle in this way was a very striking phenomenon, because from this perspective, you realize that despite being a spacecraft, it looks utterly vulnerable and handmade, with a similar skill and attention that you might otherwise see in a chinese bronze made four thousand years ago. What it made me realize is that most of the time, when someone hears about, say, the cern collider underneath geneva, it must, I assume, lead to that feeling of separation that we’ve been speaking about.
When you hear about how many years they worked on it, how deep it is underground, and how long it is—something like thirty kilometers—you must be meant to believe that it is simply beyond any individual’s capacity to challenge or question. It’s a political entity that you cannot question. Just given the sheer size of it, you’re meant to believe that people must have good intentions and it must be very important. And all of that is a very strange phenomenon to me.
GB: There’s some sort of foundational belief in the betterment of mankind behind all of this technology that we otherwise have no grasp of.
TS: I think it’s a mixture of things. I’m very interested in the relation between the individual and the community, and the questions of political passivity, involvement, and activity. I’m not personally a member of a political party, for instance, and yet I always expect my work to contribute in some way to the political dialogue.
GB: …Though political involvement cannot be a simple matter of awareness. And this clearly isn’t “concerned photography” in the classical sense.
TS: But that’s a matter of debate.