Gil Blank
Misc Fields
Although it serves principally as the catalogue to an exhibition of Thomas Struth’s museum photographs held at the Museo Del Prado earlier this year, the book published under the same title, Making Time, functions more like a Chinese box. To understand what it means, you have to unpack a few of its layers and weigh it against the conventions it upends.


First, start with its exhibition, which entailed an opportunity that the Prado gave to Struth to commandeer certain spaces within its building. Working with its existing collection on display, Struth mingled among it his own photographs showing earlier interventions he staged at other museums, in which he photographed other visitors interacting with those collections. So far, so good.


Struth then, however, went on to add still other such museum images that he had made inside the Prado itself, often in the same room, or even directly next to, the collection’s originals. One more box: Photographs were then made of that installation in turn, and compiled with each of the previous generations to make the book-object that is now Making Time. Still with me?

Installation view of Thomas Struth: Making Time, at Museo Del Prado, Madrid
Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, and Turner Publishing

The conventional structure of a photographic book is based primarily on the documentary or photojournalistic tradition. A sum of photographs bound in succession engrosses the viewer by means of a hermetic and combinative effect. It is an illusionistic mechanism that in its paradigmatic form can resemble narrative without depending on it exclusively, one tied up in its portrayal of a subject no longer present at the time of the actual viewing. It is by nature a function of metonymy, which in turn is the essential condition of the singular photographic images on which it is based. However vivid or ecstatically perfected, as the history of photographic masters from Evans and Frank to Winogrand and Eggleston demonstrates, the first century and a half of the photographic book operated largely by means of an asymptotic relationship to a depicted experience that forever remained to at least some degree external to the viewer himself. The absurdist condition of that viewer has always been such that the transcendent experience for which he ostensibly sought out (or even labored to create) the photographic book in the first place was always of a secondary order to that which was portrayed, and thus, as a matter of course, absented.


It followed that any attempt at a photography that was visibly emblematic of subjectivity—that is, the conscious potentialities of a sovereign social being—was limited to the deeply impoverished matter of expression, of totemically externalizing the internal and ineffable. But aestheticized mannerism and symbol, lyrically employed as communicative devices, in reality can only effect a greater alienation between viewer and social experience, because they add to the already metonymic condition of photographs the further distortion of metaphor. Subjectivity has therefore come to be considered effete at best, and ideologically irresponsible at worst.


All of this bears mentioning as the acknowledged precondition of Struth’s practice. What he accomplished first in his museum pictures was to immediately implicate—one might even say necessitate—the viewer’s presence in the fundamental structure of the photograph itself. By exhibiting to a museum visitor carefully constructed pictures of other museum-goers, themselves equally absorbed in moments of similar contemplation, he achieves the “mirror” effect John Szarkowski first named in the 1970s to describe those more blatantly onanistic confections of lyrical metaphor that at the time were equated with subjective practices. The mirroring they enabled reflected only the closed-loop circumstances of their own creation, but Struth’s two-way mirror crucially extends past itself to include every new viewer.


In one exquisite example, a single page in Making Time shows a Struth photograph of two visitors to the Prado standing in front of but looking just past a pair of paintings by Velázquez, toward what we presume is another artwork, just out of frame to camera right.

Museo Del Prado 2, Madrid, 2005. Photograph © Copyright Thomas Struth
Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York

Turn the page to another photograph, this one of the exact same room, taken from just a step or two back. But within the room, now mounted on the wall in what would effectively be the place held by the unidentified artwork that the original visitors were looking at, is Struth’s picture of them, still absorbed in sidelong gaze. By opening the book in your hands, you effectively take what had been their place in the previous photograph. The action bridges you across time back to their moment, so that you alternately regard and become them. But most crucially, it forces a reconsideration now, at this moment, of what it is we expect to learn and know from such interactions with art, and each other.

Installation view of Thomas Struth: Making Time, at Museo Del Prado, Madrid
Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, and Turner Publishing

It is effectively the inversion of postmodern intertextuality and appropriation: Struth’s construction of the mise-en-abîme does not designate an evacuated or destroyed social zone at all. It asserts the opposite, directly undermining theoretical pessimisms by populating those iterated references with the ever-renewed subjectivities of each additional viewer.


It’s tempting to say, then, that the museum pictures attain a singular fulfillment in Making Time, but the fluid beauty of the book is that it exceeds its own physical form and will not rest in isolation. It continually invokes readings and meanings that refer outside of itself, and by extension, quietly demands an accounting of us in turn as complete social beings, integral and potential. It’s Making Time’s great achievement and essential value that as a book it does not merely accompany or illustrate an exhibition but activates it and itself becomes activated in turn. It justly earns its name by creating a unique web of conscious relations between art and its viewers that dynamically expands in real time, at the exact moment of seeing. Making Time is for Struth an enunciation in microcosm of how a life’s work in photography, in addition to fulfilling all the fundamental criteria of classical documentary, can function more elaborately as the open-ended dynamic model of new subjectivities in the social sphere.


© Copyright Gil Blank

Thomas Struth: Making Time
Museo Nacional Del Prado, Madrid
Catalog Published by Turner

Essay originally published in Whitewall magazine, Number 7, 2007.