“When I first went to Israel,” says the 60-year-old German photographer Thomas Struth, “I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is not going to be so easy.’”
We are sitting in the new London outpost of the Marian Goodman Gallery, where Struth’s latest body of work is on display: a solo exhibition of 21 photographs mostly created during six trips to Israel and the West Bank between 2009 and 2014.
One of 12 international photographers invited by the Frenchman Frédéric Brenner to visit the area in order to contribute to an international project called This Place, Struth originally set off filled with excitement. But when he arrived in Israel, he encountered a problem: he was bereft of inspiration.
“I didn’t see any pictures,” he says. “In a strange way, the place was not very suggestive for photographs. Perhaps it was the harshness of the landscape: it’s a desert, so it’s dry, and there aren’t many trees. My feeling was that it’s no surprise that religions started in this region because the land is so dire – it leaves a lot of space for accelerated fantasy and the imagination: you practically had to invent something to make things better. Of course some parts in the south are very dramatic – they are more photogenic. But I found it very difficult.”
Confronted with the photographer’s equivalent of writer’s block, Struth decided to do something practical: he set about photographing Israel and the West Bank using familiar ‘strategies’ that he had developed over his long and successful career.
Today Struth is one of the most sought-after photographers in the world. In 2007 a print of his work Pantheon, Rome (1990), one of a well-known series of photographs of tourists lost in reverie inside the world’s greatest museums and buildings, sold at auction for more than $1 million (£658,000). The photographs in Struth’s new exhibition, his first in the UK since his brilliant retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery in east London in 2011, range in price from around $20,000 (£13,000) to more than $100,000 (£66,000).
Having studied in the ‘70s at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf under the painter Gerhard Richter and the influential photographer couple Bernd and Hilla Becher, Struth made his name by taking black-and-white pictures of empty city streets in Europe and America. Not long afterwards he began another important strand of his work: his Family Portraits, in which he asked groups of relatives only to look directly into the camera (they were otherwise free to present themselves however they wished). Next came the Museum Photographs, including Pantheon, Rome. Struth has also photographed churches and other places of worship, tangled rainforest landscapes, and, since 2007, shipyards as well as factories and workshops specialising in cutting-edge new technologies.
Most of these themes are reprised at the Marian Goodman Gallery: in fact the exhibition functions like a microcosm of the interests of his career, with a focus on Israel and the Palestinian territories. There are empty city streets – for example, those of Hebron, blighted with barbed wire and concrete barriers. There is a group portrait of the Faez family from the city of Rehovot a few miles south of Tel Aviv. There are important buildings (Tel Aviv’s City Hall), places of worship (the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in East Jerusalem and Nazareth’s Basilica of the Annunciation), and even a couple of surprisingly seductive studies of high-grade technology used in the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot.
Struth included the latter images, which are accompanied by several related photographs shot elsewhere that also foreground new technologies, because he relished the contrast between “the desert, archaic religious beliefs, and orthodox thinking” and “the most recent modern technology development in the same place”. In a sense, I suggest, he is contrasting two different types of faith: one in religion, the other in technology. “Bingo!” he replies. “That didn’t occur to me yet – but yes.”
There are also a number of landscapes, including an extraordinary vista of a wasteland on the outskirts of Ramallah with a leafless tree reflected crisply in a pool of water. Struth has produced landscape photographs in the past, but not often. He wanted to make some for this series, though, because he believed that the “fight” between the Israelis and the Palestinians is “so much about the land”.
The style of the pictures, which are digital prints shot using a large-format camera, is familiar: mostly devoid of people and often with the subject matter presented parallel to the plane of each image’s surface, the photographs have a curiously detached, dispassionate quality that is characteristic of Struth’s work. He learned this from his former tutors Bernd and Hilla Becher, who created ‘typologies’ of industrial sites by photographing them in similar conditions, subjecting them to rigorous, cold-eyed scrutiny.
This approach is important for Struth. “For me it’s a direct, face-to-face confrontation,” he says. “It’s like when you talk to somebody and just stare at them. It’s not evasive. You face it frontally.” A quintessential example is his photograph City Hall, Tel Aviv (2011), dominated by the spreading rectangle of the municipal building overlooking the site where Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995. “I’ve always been fascinated by these globally omnipresent, fairly anonymous ugly buildings,” Struth tells me, with a smile. “This building could be anywhere: Montevideo, Leverkusen, Birmingham, Chicago. But when you look at the print you also see details that show something of the use of that particular building in that climate in that country. In a way, it is emblematic of the banality of political decisions.”
Ghosts of the past
Without any prompting Struth suggests that his German background was an issue when he accepted the invitation to photograph Israel. “I’d never been to Israel,” he says. “With German history, it’s complicated. My father was a soldier in the war, in Russia and France. He was wounded twice very badly. So in our family it was a strange thing to have our father’s personal narrative but also to learn about the Holocaust fairly early.” He pauses. “But it’s not like I can go out of my skin and be Belgian or Dutch or British. I can’t help it [being German].”
Indeed, the trademark ‘look’ of Struth’s photography is arguably linked to his German background. For Germans of Struth’s generation, the legacy of the Nazis still felt uncomfortably palpable when they were growing up. “It was a call to look at things precisely,” he explains. “When Hitler emerged, and this whole development started, people were not looking correctly. They were not willing to see what was happening. They were sort of sleepwalking into disaster – or not sleepwalking but not acknowledging. They were not defending their liberal rights enough.”
In a sense, then, the sober precision of Struth’s pictures should be understood as a sort of reaction against the collective blindness that resulted in Nazism. His photographs encourage us to look head-on and with open eyes at all phenomena, including the rise of far-right political parties.
Certainly this is how his photographs of the Middle East make us consider the fraught political situation there. Struth does not take sides: “I sympathise with both causes,” he says. Instead he invites us to reflect upon the damage inflicted by so much conflict on such a contested stretch of land.
In one memorable image Struth photographs the graffiti-spattered interior of a destroyed mosque in the old Syrian village of Hushniya in the Golan Heights that was razed by the Israeli air force in 1973. The picture offers a straightforward, lamentable scene of devastation, animated by a striking detail in the background: a cracked concrete pillar that jags dramatically to the left, as though we are watching the structure collapse before our eyes. It is a forceful reminder not only of the precariousness of this ruined building but also, more generally, of the fragility of the entire political system in this part of the world.
The majority of places I photographed are not pretty or beautiful
“The majority of places I photographed are not pretty or beautiful,” Struth says. “They are extremely ordinary and not celebratory of anything. But you cannot shy away from the reality. When you’re there, it’s very sad and upsetting to see that situation.”
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.
Alastair Sooke is art critic of The Daily Telegraph