The High Museum is currently showing more than 30 images by Thomas Struth. That might not sound like a large number of photos, but given Struth’s love of large-scale prints and the detail he captures within each frame, “Thomas Struth: Nature & Politics” gives viewers a lot to look at. Like Bernd and Hilla Becher, his teachers at the arts academy in Düsseldorf, Struth is devoted to the objective documentation of places and things. And, like Andreas Gursky, a fellow Becher protégé, he chooses to portray monumental subjects in great detail. But unlike his Düsseldorf colleagues, Struth brings more lightheartedness and occasional flashes of humor to his work. His awe and curiosity are evident in many of the images in the exhibition, especially those focused on marvels of technology and engineering.
For the past ten years, Struth has traveled the globe photographing sites that represent ambitious technological feats: A space shuttle assembly plant at the Kennedy Space Center, a robotics lab, a nuclear reactor and the Max Planck Institute of Plasma Physics. Those spaces look efficient but not pristine: The walls of a cabinet in a chemistry lab at the University of Edinburgh, for example, are covered in both mathematical equations and graffiti. The mill he photographed inside Thyssenkrupp Steel glows in a ray of sunlight, but it’s sooty and rusty as well. The Max Planck Institute seems to be powered by thick skeins of wires and cables.
The title of the show is ironic: There isn’t much nature here, and little politics. At Disneyland, he photographed imitations of nature: a fake mountain that rises above an implausibly blue lagoon. At the Atlanta aquarium, he photographed clusters of bored kids and moms gazing at a wall-sized window into a giant fish tank. References to political issues are oblique. Struth photographed landscapes in Israel and Palestine, but here his objective, realistic approach prevails. We see a dusty quarry or a distant road, and there is little sign of the religious, economic and political tensions that have made these areas so feverishly contested.
The exhibition has already shown in Berlin and Essen, Germany, and will travel to Saint Louis Art Museum and Moody Center for the Arts, Houston, in the coming year. To accompany the exhibition, MACK has published a catalogue featuring all the exhibition images and many more. It provides a contemplative look at Struth’s carefully composed photos. —Holly Stuart Hughes