Struth or Dare

Civilization and Its Discontents at the Met

Thomas Struth's photographs are important, intelligent, imposing, and often quite beautiful, but it's hard to get excited about them. Though the scale and ambition of his work put Struth solidly in the company of his fellow German world-beaters, Andreas Gursky is far more spectacular and Thomas Ruff far more inventive. In their company, Struth looks almost old-fashioned—a cerebral formalist whose landscapes, grand facades, group portraits, museum interiors, and urban views are too deliberate to be dazzling.

If his retrospective, stopping at the Met in the course of a four-city American tour, seems rather too comfortable in its museum setting, that's probably because it's so thoroughly rooted in the history of its medium and of the world at large. Struth's early cityscapes, all shot into the diminishing perspective of an unpopulated street, refract Marville and Atget through the prism of Ed Ruscha and other deadpan documentarians. Formally rigorous and bracingly unromantic, the work strikes a decisive balance between classic and contemporary impulses, compressing the present and the past in remarkably lucid moments. In the pictures that followed, Struth moved into more expansive and more confined spaces with equal confidence, staking out broad vistas—harbors, mountains, housing projects, busy town squares—and the great halls of museums in photographs whose massive size and rich descriptiveness suggest the immensity of his appetite for the marvelous stuff of the natural and the material world.

But that appetite seems seriously constricted when it comes to people, so even the most crowded intersections and galleries can feel peculiarly lifeless, and his family portraits, while flawlessly composed, are stiffer and less revealing than most still lifes. His recent photos of rainforests and nature preserves, each called Paradise, turn one gallery at the Met into a lush, green oasis. They're a welcome rush of wildness in the midst of way too much civilization, and a perfect spot to contemplate the relentlessly contemplative Mr. Struth.

 
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