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Family LifeReview - Family Life
by Thomas Struth
Schirmer/Mosel, 2008
Review by Christian Perring
Jun 9th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 24)

Thomas Struth is a major contemporary photographer who takes an anthropological stance towards his subjects.  Maybe he is best known for his photographs of people in museums.  This collection of work shows families posing for the camera.  It is an extremely simple concept, as with most of Struth's work.  A book of photographs of a variety of families from different countries does not sound particularly interesting.  The titles simply give the names of the people shown, the city, and the year.  We do not learn anything more about who they are or how they are related.  Yet the images are carefully composed, with careful use of color and arrangement of the people, with interesting faces and pleasant settings.  Since these are posed portraits, we get very little indication of how the people feel about each other; the subjects keep still and look at the camera, sometimes smiling a little.  There is hardly any sense of tension or passion in these pictures.  The main signs of their emotional closeness are how close to each other the people are and whether they touch each other or not.  From looking at the families, we get some sense of how wealthy they are, how they present themselves, and what culture they are part of.  They often have very interesting faces and their clothes are distinctive, and these give hints about their character.  Some people look more relaxed than others.  We see couples of various ages, middle aged parents with their children, siblings, and larger extended families.  Mostly the pictures are taken in their homes, but occasionally they are outside.  Most are in color, but some are in black and white.  The works are collected from over more than two decades, from the early 1980s to 2007. 

Yet despite the staged nature of these pictures, they are visually gripping because of their formal qualities and what they show about their families.  These are beautiful pictures that give a positive view of the family.  In interview, Struth says that the process of taking a family photograph can take several hours, and he has a personal relationship with his subjects.  Yet we can still ask how Struth's portraits are different from those a family might get from a professional portrait photographer they could hire.  Consider the picture "The Smith Family," Fife, 1989.  There are seven people, presumably two parents and five children.  The parents sit in blue armchairs that do not look comfortable.  One son, with a fashionable haircut, a colorful shirt, grey jeans, white socks and black shoes, sits in the other chair.  An elder brother sits on the arm of the same chair: he has a moustache, a dark blue short sleeved shirt, and back pants and shoes.  Two young woman and a young man stand behind the parents: they are wearing shapeless sweaters.  The whole family looks bored and dutifully stare at the camera.  They look like they are in the front room of their house, which has some artistic pictures on the walls, and some bookshelves with old books.  They seem like a very solidly middle class respectable Scottish family, not wealthy by any means, but doing well enough.  A professional portrait photographer would get them smiling and make sure they look less bored.  They keep their distance from each other, and a commercial photographer would put them closer together.  Struth's work in this collection is a much more naturalistic and measured.  It is a strange collection in that is so deadpan and unassuming.  It is hard to pin down why these images are so striking: the very fact that we are looking at families with so many untold stories must be part of it, but it is Struth's consistently striking use of light and color that set these apart. 

 

Links:

·         Interview with Struth at FOTO8

·         Struth website (out of date)

 

 

© 2009 Christian Perring                   

   

Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.


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