It isn’t often that one sees at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art an image that shocks. When I first viewed Thomas Struth’s photograph Figure II, Charité, Berlin 2013 (further reproduction not authorized by the subject), no text, except the title accompanied the image, and I spent a lot of time contemplating its subject: a person in a hospital, wrapped and entangled in myriad tubes and machines. Was she alive was? my question. And was all this stuff the result of a code and extreme measures to keep her from dying? Was this an example of what we or our families resort to in desperate attempts to keep ourselves or loved ones alive?
I returned to view the photograph again with a friend who is a doctor to help me understand it and found that the Metropolitan had added a text. The woman, who gave her consent to be photographed, is shown anaesthetized before brain surgery. I learned that the clamp around her head was actually screwed into her skull to keep it immobile. During the surgery the patient would be covered with a warm air-filled blanket so that her body temperature would remain normal. We learn from the Metropolitan’s text that the woman was fortunate; the surgery was successful and she is doing well.
Thomas Struth (German b. 1954) is one of the most important photographers today. He became widely known in the 1990s for his photos of stark modern urban spaces and historical monuments and museums with their contemporary audiences like the now iconic interior of the Pantheon, Rome 1990 (above), from his Museum Photographs series.
Over the past five years Struth has increasingly turned his attention to places devoted to scientific research and experimentation such as the NASA facility [see photo above] where the outer-skin heat shield of space stations is repaired. These sites are characterized by forest-like tangles of wiring and machinery incomprehensible to the non-specialist. Struth has said of these images: “How should we judge what we see? More intimately, let us consider the vulnerability of the human body and soul under these circumstances. It’s all creation. It’s made. It’s not a given.” The vulnerability is especially evident in this photograph Struth made in 2013. It shows a patient under going surgery at a Berlin hospital to remove a cancer of the brain that was threatening her optic nerve and thus her sight. . . . . [T]he image acutely reveals the relationship between man and man-made machines—the surrender to, and hopes for, technology when the fragile body is imperiled.
—Gayle Rodda Kurtz, Zeteo Associate
Pantheon, Rome 1990, chromographic print, 93 ¾ x 72 ¼” (on view at The Metropolitan in the Thomas Struth exhibition, collection of The Metropolitan);
Space Shuttle 1, Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral 2008; Digital C Print, 80 7/8 x 150 ¾ 4”.
Quotation is from the wall text at The Metropolitan.
The exhibition Thomas Struth Photographs will remain at The Metropolitan until February 16, 2015.