Thomas Struth at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Thomas Struth, Pantheon, Rome (1990), chromogenic print, 76-1/4″ x 54-1/4″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Is it me, or is there something inherently unnatural about big–and I mean, big–photographs?

The work of the German artist Thomas Struth, on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, derives most of its impact from scale. His pictures of the Bavarian Forest, Times Square, the Hirose family of Hiroshima and, most famously, hordes of museum-goers wandering past some of the greatest achievements of Western art are each about the size of a medium-sized painting. That they seem gigantic has something to do with conditioning (most of us know photographs as intimate things) and something to do with the artist’s interests (Mr. Struth is taken with architectural grandeur).

Yet photography has a hard time sustaining bigness–indeed, bigness tends to underline the medium’s lack of body. (Smaller formats, on the other hand, invite close inspection of the image, and thus a greater involvement with space than with surface.) This is why presentation has become one of the defining elements of contemporary photography: It establishes the physical ballast that the medium itself is incapable of providing.

One reason why Mr. Struth works with large formats is that he wants his photographs to achieve the cultural authority of painting. But that’s not how it works: Garry Winogrand’s photographs, recently displayed at the International Center of Photography, are closer to painting than anything Mr. Struth has put his lens to, and they only measure about 8 inches by 11. Mr. Struth’s photographs are spectacular, but the vision they offer is superficial. In his world, everyone is a tourist and the glories of art are inaccessible: Alienation, he suggests, is the rule.

Why has a great museum devoted space to such a meager talent? Hype, probably–the Met’s curators are as susceptible to reputation as the rest of us. Still, there’s no forgiving the invitation they extended to Mr. Struth to install in the great hall a couple of his Video Portraits, hour-long films of people staring out at us. What the great hall really needs is the return of those planters with their seating and floral arrangements. They were considerably nicer to look at.

© 2003 Mario Naves

A version of this article was originally published in the March 9, 2003 edition of The New York Observer.




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