Geldern Germany, lives and works in Düsseldorf and Berlin
Since the late '70s Thomas Struth has been developing a body of work in which a number of themes continue to surface. One of these is the portrait, and of special concern to him is the family portrait. Struth has been photographing friends and acquaintances from the art world within their family situations since 1985.
In comparison to that of previous centuries, today's family portrait has lost some of its meaning. Having been a genre whose practitioners included the most prominent painters, the family portrait has now become increasingly the territory of the amateur photographer who captures the highlights and more trivial moments in family life. Ingo Hartmann, a psychoanalyst and friend of Struth, asked his patients to select family photographs that portrayed the atmosphere in which they grew up. This proved to be such an impressive reserve of visual material concerning a range of family relationships that Hartmann and Struth used it to compile the exhibition Familienleben during the early '80s. Their analysis of that material strengthened Struth in his conviction that, as a medium, photography is able to reveal and convey aspects of reality. The project would moreover influence Struth's decision to work in the genre himself.
The family portraits produced by Struth since that time have little in common with family snapshots taken in a spontaneous way. Because of his approach to the theme, the careful framing of the image and its frequently very large format, the works sooner relate to the painterly tradition of the family portrait. At times the portraits seem to refer directly to an existing painting, such as the monumental portrait The Falletti Family, in which the mother has adopted the very pose and position of the courtier, standing in the open doorway, in the work Las Meninas by Velasquez.
But the way in which Struth involves his models in the realization of the portrait is also reminiscent of roles played in earlier centuries, when the portrait subjects who commissioned the work could significantly influence the final result. We cannot speak of a 'commission' situation with Struth's works, but he does attach great importance to an equal relationship.
Struth remains at a distance and makes no attempt in his photographs to force his way into the family's intimacy. Poses are deliberately taken in the portraits. The members of the family have been portrayed frontally and in the center of the image, against the background of their garden, on the sofa in the living room, at a table or even in the kitchen. Although the families allow us a glimpse of their own living environments, we remain outsiders; the gazes alone, while emphatically directed at us, rarely invite eye contact. The atmosphere so characteristic of Struth's photographs is partly a consequence of his way of working. Because Struth uses no artificial light, long shutter times (slow shutter speeds?) are required. The length of time spent on taking the photograph also makes the subjects revert to themselves. That motionless inwardness seems to shield them from control by the viewer's fleeting and eager eye. It is as though time has come to a halt in the photographs; the viewer, too, is thereby forced to slow down the pace of observation. Despite its balanced composition, organized setting and clear articulation of space, the sharply focused image does not reveal itself in a single glance.