The work of Struth's teacher and mentor, Bernhard Becher, and his fascination with architecture as artifact was not lost upon the young Struth-- immediately following his graduation from the Dusseldorf Academy the budding photographer began an extensive series of black and white cityscape photography in which the urban street was the predominant subject. In that series Struth sought to expose the mysterious within the ordinary by isolating contemporary structures and locations. As in Becher's work, Struth probed the relationship between the past and the present, ultimately offering the viewer a subtle cultural inquiry.
In 1989 this thematic approach prompted Struth to begin his now illustrious museum series. In the Louvre, Struth shot groups sitting before David's expansive neoclassical canvases and the array of visitors fighting for a glance of Géricault's Raft of the Medusa, while in Art Institute of Chicago 1 he captured viewers' bodies against the backdrop of Seurat's La Grand Jatte. Expanding the practice, Struth also photographed visitors of churches-- including San Zaccaria, the Chiesa Dei Frari, and Basilica de Monreale-- which, like the major museums he chose, also became high profile tourist destinations. As Hans Belting notes, "we don't usually go to an exhibition to look at the people there, especially not to observe people who are merely looking at pictures-- a situation in which we soon become entangled in a kind of tautology of their gaze being within our gaze. We then discover in this labyrinth of perception yet a third site-- not the museum where the paintings are hanging, but the place where they depict" (H. Belting, Thomas Struth: Museum Photographs, exh. cat., Kunsthalle, Hamburg, 1993, p.6).
"This place" for Struth is the interstice between worship and display in contemporary culture-- emblematized by the most famous image of the series, Pantheon, Rome. In this work Struth captures the enormity of the great ancient temple that eventually would be converted to a church. The presence of the small tour group in the center of the foreground and the stray outlying figures interrupt the sense of quietude of the building's intended religious mood, as the visitors seem more intent upon taking photographs and examining the building's interior rather than venerating a particular deity. Within the context of the series at large, Struth presents a subtle but coherent thesis: the museum is now contemporary culture's site of worship, and the church our site of display.
Struth's photos of the crowds clamoring in front of celebrated paintings strike a stark contrast to the detached scrutiny of the small groups wandering through our houses of religion. With an implicit smirk, Struth has been sure to choose compositions that resemble the amateur tourist photo: an anonymous vantage point often within a crowd or at a distance, with a major cultural landmark or masterpiece as the focal point. This subtle hoax lends a sense of neutrality to the practice of "institutional critique," a subject matter that has been marked by a tradition of political radicalism. Much like his teachers Gerhard Richter and Bernhard Becher, Struth has settled upon a delicate balance of objectivity and criticism, sure to guide his viewers to the proper questions, but always leaving the answers up to them.