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Photography Writ Large: The Monumental Art Of Thomas Struth

Oct 31, 2016

A big blue rooster has appeared on top of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. It's part of the museum's renovated East Building, which recently opened to the public with several new exhibitions — including a handful of pictures by the highly regarded German art photographer Thomas Struth.

The pictures belong to Robert Meyerhoff and Rheda Becker, a couple who began collecting photographs nine years ago. Their very first purchase — Struth's Alte Pinakothek, Self-Portrait, Munich 2000 -- is now hanging in an East Building gallery. In it, Struth is seen out of focus and from behind, inspecting a self-portrait by German Renaissance painter Albrecht Dürer. Struth shot the photo so that Dürer's painting looks life-size.

Becker always loved Dürer's self-portrait. She says that when she saw Struth's double self-portrait, "I was so fascinated by the idea that someone was doing what I had just done. This wasn't a photograph of the Dürer; it was a photograph of ... someone looking at a great work of art."

She shared the experience with Meyerhoff, who was already a major collector. As Becker remembers it, "[He] was the one who said, 'It would be fun to see if we could get that.' "

Struth is known for large pictures of people looking at paintings, sculptures and art in museums. He also makes massive architectural images. His photo of the facade of Notre Dame — part of the Meyerhoff-Becker collection — is 6 feet by 8 feet, the largest photographic paper Kodak makes. In it, the looming cathedral fills the photo space, and visitors below are as small as the sculptures that adorn it. It's as if the photo was taken from the high window of a tall building across the way — but there's no tall building there. For the elevated, head-on perspective he wanted, the photographer needed a place to stand with his big, 8-by-10-view camera. So he ordered a very tall, moveable platform. "It came on a gigantic truck on a Saturday morning at 7 o'clock," Struth says.

He had to remove the platform every evening, and take it back to the front of the cathedral every morning. He also had to ask a souvenir hawker to move his wares so as not to get in the picture. "He said, 'Well that makes like 500 euros less profit on one day,' " Struth remembers. "So we paid him some money to move it."

The photographer then waited for just the right number of tourists to walk by. In the enormous photo, not one tourist is blurred. It took two days to get the image he wanted — some 120 shots.

Struth spent considerably less time making another photo in the Meyerhoff-Becker collection. It's very different from his architectural and museum work, and much less dramatic. A curator at the National Gallery in London wanted to commission him to photograph Britain's Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. It wasn't exactly his style, so the photographer spent days making pro and con lists. Con: He could fail, and that would be bad. Pro (but also sort of con): "If it succeeds, then I have to talk about it all the time," he says.

So Struth set some conditions. First, he would pick the dress — nothing fancy, no fur-trimmed robe, no crown. He chose a simple pale blue, silk dress, a small pin on the shoulder and black patent pumps. Three weeks before the shoot, he scoped out Windsor Castle and picked a room with gold trim, chandeliers and a rich green brocaded love seat that he angled back so a bright natural light made the queen more prominent.

The royals sit facing the camera. Her expression is pleasant; his stare is intent. "He's like an old eagle," Struth says of Prince Philip. Struth took 17 photographs in 25 minutes.

"They were actually quite nice together," the photographer recalls. "While I was dealing with the camera and stuff like that in between, they were talking to one another and I thought, They're great. I like them."

To collectors Meyerhoff and Becker, they look like a fairly ordinary suburban couple in a fancy room — the kind of couple you could have "over for a Johnny Walker Black."

In addition to Struth's work, Rheda Becker and Robert Meyerhoff's photography collection includes pieces by Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall, Catherine Opie and John Baldessari. All those contemporary photographers, and more, are on display in the East Building of the National Gallery of Art until early March.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

OK, not a cat, but a big blue rooster has appeared on top of the National Gallery here in Washington, D.C., overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue. The sculpture might be crowing about the reopening of the museum's east building after a three-year renovation. Several new exhibitions are up. One includes an art photographer who is a favorite of NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg. She met him and his collectors at the museum.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: How are you doing, sir? Glad to see you this morning.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: The guard gives a big greeting to philanthropist Robert E. Meyerhoff and Rheda Becker, a couple who began collecting photographs nine years ago. Thirty-five of them were just installed on the gallery walls.

RHEDA BECKER: It's very exciting. Look at that. Isn't it wonderful?

STAMBERG: They head toward one of the very first pictures they bought, by German photographer Thomas Struth. It's a double self-portrait - Struth inspecting a self-portrait by Albrecht Durer. Rheda loved Durer. Robert admired Struth.

BECKER: And Bob was the one who said it would be fun to see if we could get that.

STAMBERG: Were you a couple at that point, or did...

BECKER: Well, we became a couple very closely after that (laughter).

STAMBERG: So, inadvertently, Thomas Struth played Cupid. Struth is a highly respected contemporary photographer known for large pictures of people looking at paintings, sculptures, art in museums. He also makes massive architectural images. His photo of the facade of Notre Dame, part of the Meyerhoff-Becker collection, is 6 feet by 8 feet, the largest photographic paper Kodak makes.

The looming Cathedral fills the vast photo space. Visitors below are as small as the sculptures that adorn it. It's as if the photo was taken from the high window of a tall building across the way. But there is no tall building there. For the high, head-on perspective he wanted, Struth needed a place to stand with his big 8-by-10 view camera. He ordered a very tall movable platform.

THOMAS STRUTH: And it came on a gigantic truck on a Saturday morning at 7 o'clock. And I thought, oh, my God.

STAMBERG: He had to remove the platform every evening and take it back to the front of the cathedral every morning. Then, he had to ask a souvenir hawker to move his wares so as not to get in the picture.

STRUTH: And he said, well, that makes, like, 500 euros less profit on one day. So (laughter) - so we paid him some money to move his.

STAMBERG: And then he had to wait for the right number of tourists to walk by. In the enormous photo, not one tourist is blurred. It took two days to get the image he wanted - some 120 shots. Thomas Struth spent less time making another photo in the Meyerhoff-Becker collection, very different from his architectural and museum work - much less dramatic. This one was commissioned by a curator at the National Gallery in London.

STRUTH: I was sitting at the studio that morning in Dusseldorf and got the call. And I thought, this is crazy.

STAMBERG: Him photograph Britain's Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip? Not exactly his style. Struth spent days making pro-and-con lists. Con - he could fail. That would be bad. Pro, but sort of con-ish (ph)...

STRUTH: If it succeeds, I have to talk about it all the time. Also, it was...

STAMBERG: You're doing a pretty good job right now.

Thomas Struth set some conditions.

STRUTH: I need to select the dress.

STAMBERG: Nothing fancy - no fur-trimmed robe, no crown. He chose a simple, pale blue silk, small pin on the shoulder, black patent pumps. Three weeks before the shoot, he scoped out Windsor Castle, picked a room with gold trim, chandeliers, a rich, green brocaded love seat, angled back so a bright, natural light makes the Queen more prominent. The royals sit facing the camera, her expression pleasant, his stare intent.

STRUTH: He's like an old eagle.

STAMBERG: Thomas Struth took 17 pictures in 25 minutes.

STRUTH: They were actually quite nice together. You know, while I was dealing with the camera and stuff like that in between, they were talking to one another. And I thought, they're - they're great. You know, I like them.

STAMBERG: To collectors Rheda Becker and Robert Meyerhoff, they look like a fairly ordinary suburban couple in a fancy room.

There are these two married people sitting on a nice couch.

BECKER: I know, I know. It's just brilliant.

ROBERT E MEYERHOFF: Nice couple, whoever they are.

BECKER: (Laughter). Have them over for a Johnnie Walker Black.

MEYERHOFF: Yeah, they look like the type.

STAMBERG: In addition to Thomas Struth's work, Becker and Meyerhoff's photography collection includes Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall among others - major contemporary photographers - in the east building of the National Gallery until early March. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.