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The far side of near

A chat with... THOMAS STRUTH. The versatile, famed German photographer goes to the far sides of the planet to bring something to his newest exhibition in Berlin.

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Photo by Sam Williams

Thomas Struth’s investigations began in the 1970s. His street photographs looked at the surface, the formation of moments snatched from day-to-day life. Then he took family portraits. His last major show focused on churches, museums and other public buildings in a series of large-format photographs which look like abstract paintings. The scrawl that inscribes chemical experiment chambers like illuminated texts, the innards of the machines that manufacture the future, and the places that encipher abstract reality. It’s all evidence, Struth explains…

How do you find the locations for your photographs?

Through a variety of things. The pharmaceutical-packaging machinery and the steel are in Buenos Aires. I was participating in a book show and I asked whether I could take some photographs. One of the trustees had a big pharmaceutical company and the person who gave us the money is a big steel producer. Once the idea falls into shape, it’s easier to stay alert. I just keep myself open.

How do you work?

The idea is to uncover or disclose something of the entangled frenzy of the modern world and its technical production – to bring back a picture that is essentially telling. For example, you don’t think about a power station being dismantled in Stuttgart when you turn on an electric light. Normally you only see the landscape – a cooling tower – but it doesn’t reveal much. There’s no expression of the traumatic narrative, so I want to go inside it and see what it looks like.

So, rather than seeing the cooling tower on the hillside, someone looking at your work moves into it, bonds with it and then realizes how entangled they are in the process?

Yes, it’s to see that this is my entanglement. It’s not “them”, it’s “us”. This is our world. It’s not just a factory in China or Argentina. We’re involved… as active members in the use of electricity, the car, carbon energy. It’s a very natural science-dominated world. The belief is that natural science’s inventions will save us all. Scientists believe in science and technology – it’s like a religion.

The plasma chamber looks like some kind of idol, a god figure…

Yeah. Well, for me, it’s the Golden Fleece. I want to show, understand, get as entangled as scientists get. To get this entangled, they have to really believe in something in an almost religious way. You show the entanglement and the intensity, and the forgetting of everything else.

You have a photograph of a fume cupboard at Edinburgh University, with scrawl all over the perspex windows – like graffiti. Was it done by scientists?

All these environments require mental power. They’re much less about emotional power or the power of the heart. So it also has a lot to do with texts – negotiations, the development of ideas. I saw all these fantastic texts on top of each other.

Why does it say J’ai mal au nez?

While the scientists are working together, they scribble formulas on the glass, and there are language lessons as they’re all from different countries.

The picture of the shipping yard made me think of Moby-Dick. The shipping containers look like coffins…

I wanted to show this scenery, how big these container ships actually are – like the actual science of oil refinery, to better understand it. Moby-Dick is very interesting because there’s so much more behind the enormous size of the ships… just as there is behind the white whale… the drive to make these ships bigger and bigger and bigger. They can build four ships at the same time that are 450 metres long. I’m interested in showing a different side to what you normally have access to.

So, are you a documentary photographer? You seem obsessed with evidence. That’s a dimension of it, but the category is too small. You can look at the work of a young painter and no-one would say it’s documentary but I would. You’re always documenting something. And you’re adding to a possible transformation. I’m always sort of hoping that by showing this entanglement, it will lead to a liberation. That people will realise it’s not good to be so entangled. So, what’s the next step?

GALERIE MAX HETZLE | Tue-Sat 11-18. Through Nov 27