Photographer Thomas Struth has been places where you will never go, like the inside of a fusion reactor.
The wall-sized images that he brings back from these excursions are more than documents. They capture some of the awe and strangeness of his experiences.
More than 30 of Struth’s monumental photographs make up a new exhibit at the High Museum of Art: “Thomas Struth: Nature & Politics,” on display now through January.
The works come from Struth’s travels through Europe, the Middle East, Asia and the U.S., and they include two photographs taken in Atlanta in 2013. The High is the first museum in this country to exhibit these works.
The German photographer recently spoke about the High exhibit, during an Atlanta visit that also included a stop at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
His dedication to large-scale art, he said, came about during the 1970s when he visited a show at the Light Gallery in Manhattan, a venue known for legitimizing photography as an art form. Struth, a tall man, found himself bending over to examine each small print, as if bowing repeatedly. “I realized, this is not what I want,” he said. His own art, he resolved, “needed to be big, to create a better relationship between the figure that you see in the photograph and yourself.”
His pictures are, indeed, big, but the relationship is still mysterious. Struth’s photos are often of empty landscapes or of dense, energetic industrial interiors — a pharmaceutical factory, a fusion reactor, a robotic surgery lab, the space shuttle.
Is it a vision of progress? “More and more, we invest our hopes in progress and technology and get very excited about it,” he said, “and at the same time, the level of progress seems to be stagnating in the social, political environment.”
For example, he said, after the inspiring service at Ebenezer, which reminded him of this country’s better spirits, he watched the second presidential debate on television, and was discouraged. “What happened to the engagement for, the fight for more important causes?” he asked.
He was also taken with the body language of the two candidates, with Donald Trump looming behind Hillary Clinton. “He was like an evil puppeteer, a dark version of ‘The Muppet Show.’ … It frightens me.”
Political progress, he said, can seem illusory. But, then again, sometimes technological progress is less than it’s cracked up to be.
His photos revel in the engineered world, and sometimes poke fun at it. One photo of a scene from Disneyland shows a man-made diminutive mountain, constructed behind a swimming pool. “Disney saw these things on his trips to Europe, he’d re-create them in cement and papier-mache,” Struth said. “It seemed so innocent in a way, and it was interesting to photograph that, with this ambiguity of memory, imagination and fantasy.”
Struth’s early reputation was enlarged by his photos of people in museums, some of which capture the artwork that is the focus of the patron’s gaze, and others that simply focus on the patrons’ faces. What he wants people in museums to do, he said, is lighten up.
“People have so much respect, maybe too much respect for art,” he said. “It is, maybe, a false dynamic. They are intimidated by art, rather than stimulated. I’d like to make a campaign reminding people they need to stay relaxed when they look at art. Don’t worry about walking past a painting.”
“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.