In the ranks of contemporary, internationally known artists, German photographer Thomas Struth is a significant player whose works have commanded seven-figure sums and have been exhibited in top museums around the world.
Struth is known for his enormous photographs shot with the kind of rich detail and depth of field offered with a large-format camera. His images often capture the texture of our modern age in his portraits of cities, architecture, museum spectators and families.
“Thomas Struth: Nature & Politics” is a coup for the High Museum: the first American museum to exhibit this new body of work. Whether this abstruse, often intellectually challenging work draws the crowds is another matter. Like other German artists, from Bernd and Hilla Becher to Gerhard Richter (all of whom he has studied under) and Andreas Gursky, there is a restraint and chilliness to Struth’s images in “Nature & Politics” in part due to the absence of human beings in so many of the works.
But that remove is also due in part to what Struth captures — the mysterious tangled cables, machinery and architecture of labs, scientific institutes and factories where steel is manufactured, where measurement occurs or where robots or pharmaceuticals are made. Struth casts a clinical, dispassionate eye on these dramatic, mysterious, esoteric spaces where inexplicable work is performed. The hulking metal apparatus tethered like King Kong to a dock in “Semi Submersible Rig DSME Shipyard, Geoje Island” in a South Korean shipyard looks like some metal spider crouched and ready to strike when we least expect it. There is a disquieting calm to these scenes dominated by human creations, but absent of their creators.
On the one hand, Struth captures the incredible might, technology and innovation of First World nations: a Georgia Tech robotics lab, a Cape Canaveral space shuttle lab, the technology-clogged nexus of a 21st-century German surgical suite where the tubes and respirators and machinery are so omnipresent, it can often take a moment or two to pick out the fleshy, pink body in the midst of all of that technological fracas. In another pole of work, Struth captures both actual nature and a highly mediated, fake nature, as in the artificial landscape of Disneyland in “Mountain, Anaheim” with its man-made mountains and lagoons.
Some of Struth’s most affecting and damning images amid so many signs of progress and wealth are his photographs of buildings and churches in Tel Aviv or Ramallah or the Golan Heights, a region marked by conflict and also by a sense of ancient history. Within Struth’s images, two worlds coexist, one where money allows for remarkable strides and another world lost in time, defined by centuries rather than decades. Perhaps it is that contrast that Struth is after when he invokes “politics”: the yawning divide between technology and religion, places of material wealth and domestic peace versus nations where conflict marks the landscape. In that sense, “Nature & Politics” offers much food for thought.
On the other hand, “Nature & Politics” can raise the question of how many abstract visions of inscrutable laboratories and factories and rooms filled with mysterious machinery do we need in order to understand that divide? Struth is an undeniably skilled photographer with much to say about our global consciousness, but I often longed for fewer rooms filled with machines and more images outside of a privileged Western realm where money and access suggest limitless possibility.
Buildings like a Golan Heights mosque destroyed by past conflicts are Struth’s brutal reminder that even as humankind reaches pinnacles of innovation, it slides cruelly back into darkness and destruction at the same time, another world away.
“Thomas Struth: Nature & Politics”
Through Jan. 8. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays and Saturdays; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays; noon-5 p.m. Sundays. The following reflects High’s recently changed ticket pricing: $14.50, ages 6 and above; free, children 5 and younger and members. High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-4444, www.high.org.
Bottom line: Remarkable but often intellectually abstruse images from a world-renowned photographer.