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Thomas Struth: Photographs 1978–2010, Whitechapel Gallery, London

Struth is a painstaking witness and a shrewd inquistor of the world

Midway through this excellent show is a generous selection of the black-and-white cityscapes that photographer Thomas Struth made his name with in the 1980s.

Taken when the streets were empty, whether in Düsseldorf, Brussels or New York, they show ensembles of buildings in which there is no dominant focus. Though there’s a glimpse of the World Trade Center in one of them, and a corner of Rome’s popular Campo dei Fiori in another, they usually depict quite unspectacular sites that few people would think were destinations.

‘I learned that certain areas of the city have an emblematic character; they express the city’s structure,’ says Struth. Yet he also speaks of ‘unconscious places’, in the sense that such sites ‘inscribe their history into the unconscious minds of the people who occupy them’. So when we look at these photographs we’re encouraged to pause in places which we would usually pass through and to consider how far they capture the essence of the surrounding city.

They are shot beneath blank skies on sunless days, so there are no shadows to obscure their wealth of detail. In these amalgamations of past and present, the scale, style, material and ornament of the individual buildings all register, as do the signage, the overhead wires and the asphalt or cobbles of the street. As you study these elements you can infer how the site has evolved and assess its overall harmony, for despite their modest size these images are dense with information.

In the blank skies and apparent objectivity of his approach, there’s a reminder that Struth was a pupil of Bernd and Hilla Becher at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. The Bechers’ sober, sedulous documenting of industrial structures must be among the most significant photographic projects of the post-war period, while their teaching has had a pervasive influence - Stefan Gronert’s book The Düsseldorf School of Photography features a dozen of their pupils, Struth included. All of them have benefited from the new respectability that photography has enjoyed in museums and galleries in the last two decades, however cynical the art market’s embrace of the medium might have been.

While Struth has continued to scrutinise the city, this show includes several other distinct groups of works. In contrast to the cityscapes and their attention to the ‘unseen’, Struth has photographed numerous museums and monuments such as Milan Cathedral and the Pantheon in Rome - places where works of art or the building itself are designated sights on a cultural itinerary.

Struth’s focus rests upon the spectators’ response and the way they engage or not with the supposed object of attention, and it’s no surprise to find that often these cultural treasures are treated with the same indifference as the anonymous city streets. In one photograph (included in the catalogue but not the show), a room of Raphael’s frescoes at the Vatican is as crammed with people as a Japanese commuter train and almost no-one is looking at the walls.

Two other series of works explore the twin poles of nature and culture. Struth’s large-scale photographs of rainforests are neatly complemented by his recent forays into such high-tech environments as the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics and the Kennedy Space Center. What unites these disparate worlds is Struth’s way of picturing them, again without an obvious central subject. Whether you are looking at images of moss-covered tree trunks and myriad leaves of the forests, or the exceptional intricacy of the apparatus at the Planck Institute, your eye roams all over these photographs, in which every element holds a similar weight.

Even in Struth’s image of a drilling rig in a South Korean shipyard, which at first glance appears to be dominated by the huge red rig in the water, the diagonal cables deflect your attention to all areas of the vast, 2.8 x 3.5m print. As in the two panoramic views of Ulsan Metropolitan City in South Korea at the end of the show, this ‘all over’ treatment of the image encourages you to prolong your exploration of it, and the more you do, the more you find.

These recent cityscapes are certainly spectacular but also full of substance. Unlike another student of the Bechers, Andreas Gursky, who works on a similar scale, Struth has resisted the lure of digital manipulation and stays faithful to the scenes he represents. Of late he has shown an increasing interest in places that are still under construction, impelled by what he calls ‘our capacity to erase or ignore history in a headlong desire to build the future’. With this memorable exhibition of images at the Whitechapel Gallery, Struth is both a painstaking witness and a shrewd inquisitor of the world we have made and are making.

Thomas Struth: Photographs 1978-2010

Where: Whitechapel Gallery, London

When: Until 16 September

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