‘ I think the conscious absence of people is necessary to show that what you’re looking at is a human creation.
And so the mentality and everything that humans represent is expressed through the buildings. With too many people it would just be a normal street scene, with people in houses and you wouldn’t get that feeling.’
‘ We see a space of passage formed by structures eloquent with history, culture, time, chance, and vernacular use… A conviction of meaningfulness, like a pressure in the brain, grows on us. It is not a matter of anything normally ‘interesting’. The place is unremarkably, merely real. At the same time, it seems a rebus urgent to be read, as if it secreted evidence of a crime. We do not feel necessarily that the photographer knew the secret. He is not toying with us. It is rather as if he had a Geiger counter for meaning, whose meter happened to go crazy at this location’.
‘ I have been photographing streets in several distinct areas of New York City since I arrived here in 1977. The photographs on view are only part of a continuing project. I started to do this kind of photography in Düsseldorf, where I live, in 1975. I have also photographed streets from a central perspective in Berlin and London, and intend to do the same in other cities’
THOMAS STRUTH, ARTIST’S STATEMENT, 1978
West 21st Street, New York (1978) is one of a seminal series of photographs taken by Thomas Struth during his time in New York,
where he was sent on a scholarship from the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in December 1977. Anchored by an unvarying central perspective, the images display the endless variation of inner-city scenery. While he takes his place in a tradition of urban architectural
photography that dates back to the nineteenth century, Struth’s dispassionate clarity of vision also follows that of his tutors Berndt
and Hilla Becher, who documented types of industrial structure in grids of monochrome photographs shot from the same elevated angle. Viewed in concert, each strict typological series – water towers, blast furnaces, gas tanks – revealed the unvarying functional form of which each example was a unique variant: a Platonic truth about reality was unlocked. Struth’s intensive cataloguing of New York streets brings this comparative technique into the living domain of the city, powerfully illuminating its social and cultural realities through the structures that define its environment.
Peter Schjeldahl has written sensitively of the unique aura of Struth’s street scenes. ‘We see a space of passage formed by structures
eloquent with history, culture, time, chance, and vernacular use’, he writes. ‘… A conviction of meaningfulness, like a pressure in the
brain, grows on us. It is not a matter of anything normally ‘interesting’. The place is unremarkably, merely real. At the same time, it seems a rebus urgent to be read, as if it secreted evidence of a crime. We do not feel necessarily that the photographer knew the secret. He is not toying with us. It is rather as if he had a Geiger counter for meaning, whose meter happened to go crazy at this location’ (P. Schjeldahl, ‘God’s Truth’, The Village Voice, 2 March 1998). This idea of a ‘Geiger counter for meaning’ applies to all of Struth’s work, which exposes the significance of our everyday surroundings with masterful subtlety. His widely-admired ‘museum photographs’ juxtapose museum visitors with the figures in the paintings and sculptures they are gazing at: highlighting the different ways we look at art and everyday life, Struth gently recalibrates our eye for colour, form and beauty in the latter.
His systematic portraits of families employ their genre’s inherent theatricality to explore the ways in which we wish to be seen, Struth’s
subjects ‘performing’ the roles of their own selves and relationships in a heightened way that engenders a sharp self-consciousness in
the viewer. Like the Bechers, Struth strikes a precise, complex and resonant balance between objectivity and criticism, leaving meaning open to completion with the viewer’s own response. A high point of his early career, the street photographs seem initially to profess radical detachment, yet ultimately emerge as surprisingly intimate documents. West 21st Street, New York shows how people relate to where they live, and how human lives leaves their mark upon the fabric of a city. From a deadpan initial impression, the photograph resounds with greater and greater profundity upon extended looking, and slowly reconfigures how we see ourselves in the world around us.