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Photographs of Spectators

Posted By Jaime Gassmann

Photographer Thomas Struth recently caught my eye, not only with his photographs, but with what he says in interviews.

In a discussion of one of his mentors, Gerhard Richter, Struth says quite astutely, “And his paintings of photographs, once questioned by purists, now seem to have prefigured a Tumblr and Facebook era in which finding, posting and recycling images are an everyday activity … Everyone is in an archival roller-coaster process of picture language.”

Struth captures a range of subjects, from cityscapes to family portraits. Here’s one photograph of his that reminds me of the constant documentation of mundane daily details in social media:

The reversal of point of view, of the art looking back upon the museum patron, endows these gawkers with profundity. A difficult thing to do. I mean, look at them! And to think that’s what kind of empty-headed look I probably make at the world’s art galleries.

“The museum photographs each show people doing what you are doing yourself – looking at a picture,” says Struth. “For every frame, I waited between one hour and four or five hours for the decisive composition.”

I cannot help but quote at length a famous scene in the Don DeLillo novel White Noise.

Several days later Murray asked me about a tourist attraction known as the most photographed barn in America. We drove 22 miles into the country around Farmington. There were meadows and apple orchards. White fences trailed through the rolling fields. Soon the sign started appearing. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. We counted five signs before we reached the site. There were 40 cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot. We walked along a cowpath to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing. All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides — pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.

“No one sees the barn,” he said finally.

A long silence followed.

“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”

He fell silent once more. People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced by others.

We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.”

There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.

“Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. It literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”

Another silence ensued.

“They are taking pictures of taking pictures,” he said.

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