Thomas Struth’s Aura

#1 Thomas Struth, “Audience 2, Florence”, 2004, Chromogenic Print, 178 x 234.5cms

Thomas Struth, born in 1954, emerged from Bernd Becher’s Dusseldorf Academy as one of the golden-era group of five photographers who have greatly raised the profile of European fine-art photography. The others were Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Axel Hütte and Thomas Ruff.

Struth has created many series of images. Perhaps the best known are his various series of museum photographs. Of these, the most admired have been a series of twenty or more images of people looking at paintings, such as #2 below.

#2 Thomas Struth, “Art Institute of Chicago 2”, 1990. Chromogenic Print, 137.5 x 174.5

He made a second, smaller, series of images comprising just six photographs in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin between 1996 and 2001.

However, I want to focus on a third group of museum photographs simply entitled the “Audience” series. These were shot in the Galleria dell’ Accademia in Florence in the summer of 2004.

Much has been written about these five series of photographs (the fourth and fifth being shot in the Prado and the Hermitage in 2005), in particular by the philosopher and critic Michael Fried who devoted an entire chapter to the first three series of photographs in his book “Why Photography Matters As Art As Never Before”.

Fried writes that Struth’s “Audience” series was one of several commissioned from various artists to create works of art based on, or influenced by, Michelangelo’s “David” in Florence.

#3 Michelangelo, “David”, 1501-04, marble, Galleria ‘dell Accademia, Florence

Struth’s interesting take on the creative brief was to set up his 10″ x 8″ camera on a tripod near to the base of the statue, and point it at the museum patrons who had come to see Michelangelo’s masterpiece, and to not feature the statue itself in any of the images. The result is a visual compendium of responses to the statue, almost all captured oblivious to the camera.

As Fried writes, “In several photographs (such as) “Audience 2”, for example, (see #1 above) the space is crammed and the range of behaviour and facial expressions is fairly wide. In the family to the left of centre, the father gazes upward respectfully…Still further to the right a handsome (European?) woman in chic black slacks and sleeveless top with a yellow sweater tied around her waist bends almost protectively over her daughter…as both gaze upwards with apparent intensity.”

Fried goes on to describe the actions and expressions of the tourists (his term) as being “…genuine, spontaneous, Diderot might say “naive”…” by which I take Fried to mean that their reactions are genuine. (Parenthetically, Fried speculates that in terms of the images’ apparent truth, “…technologically, we are forever now on insecure ground…” Fried’s book was published in 2008. Sixteen years on, we are on exponentially less secure ground in terms of photography’s authenticity. Though on this

#4 Thomas Struth, “Audience 3″, Florence”, 2004, Chromogenic print, 178 x 297cms

point of truth, what Fried doesn’t comment on is the colour harmony of “Audience 3” [#4 above] which has quite possibly had the colour altered to make it more harmonious. Note the way the pale pinks of the foreground women frame the pietra serena coloured shirts of the two figures between them. The only note of colour dissonance in the entire photograph being the lime green of the bag held by the woman in the left background.)

Fried argues that Struth’s photographs of people looking at “…David incarnates an existential challenge that today cannot be fully understood, much less answered.” What, precisely, that existential challenge is he doesn’t say.

I believe that these images are also the incarnation of something else.

Walter Benjamin 1892-1940

In his influential 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, Benjamin put forward the notion of the “aura” of a work of art. (He uses the word twenty-two times in the course of the essay.) He argued that “…even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: Its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” He referred to this unique cultural context i.e. “its presence in time and space” as its “aura”. He added, “….reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition.” Coincidentally, Benjamin uses an example of statute to illustrate the point that its meaning (how a statue is interpreted) may be manifold, but its aura is universal.

“An ancient statue of Venus, for example, stood in a different traditional context with the Greeks, who made it an object of veneration, than with the clerics of the Middle Ages, who viewed it as an ominous idol. Both of them, however, were equally confronted with its uniqueness, that is, its aura.”

This aura is not reproducible. And, while much discussion has subsequently focused on photography, in the notes to the essay Benjamin gives an example of a woodcut print of a painting of a Madonna as not having the authenticity, and therefore the aura, of the original. Though, he does acknowledge that this form of reproduction “…was instrumental in differentiating and grading authenticity.”

What Struth gives us in his series of museum photographs is a visual depiction or manifestation of this aura to which Benjamin refers. The impact of the real and of history which only the real object confers, and which Benjamin writes about, is written on the faces of the museum-goers in Struth’s images. It is impossible to imagine the same response, either individually or collectively, to any work in reproduction. Except, perhaps, the collective response to a cinematic experience. What we are witnessing here is akin to the group experience that the collective presence in a cinema conveys; the feeling of belonging that is shared and affirmative. The photographer Robert Adams wrote that,

“At our best and most fortunate we make pictures because of what stands in front of the camera, to honor what is greater and more interesting than we are.”

It can be argued that we do something similar when we, as a group, “honor” what is best about us. In this case, the power exuded by the masterpiece that is Michelangelo’s “David”. And, its affect, its reflected aura, is what Thomas Struth has captured in this series of images.

March 2024

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *