Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Power play

I almost passed another Thomas Struth photo by. The first time I saw one of his photos in a gallery, I also almost passed it by. This time, a quick glance at a news report of his photograph online and I thought, "What's special about that photo?" and clicked on. Then went back. Then read the article. As with that photo in a gallery maybe 20 years ago, something made me look again. 20 years ago it was a seemingly simple architectural street shot featuring no people and at first glance with no distinguishing features that kept my attention. But at his best, Struth creates a visual "tension" somehow in the seemingly mundane. And that "tension" is a hallmark of one strand of great art, whether it's music or visual art, say, lyric or photo. By working being undemonstrative, by setting off one aspect (idea, musical phrase, brush stroke etc) against another, by letting the viewer/listener realise there is more and by "suspending" the work above their expectations, the artist creates a "tension" that holds an idea up. Raises it and suspends it, creating the impact by that creative tension.

It's in the smile of Mona Lisa, and the mismatched horizon behind her; in the muted trumpet of Miles Davis when you expect a full note; in a lyric by Bob Dylan when you expect a straightforward pairing of phrases but get the opposite or simply the more difficult. And at times this comes across to the audience as effortless, whereas a talent and skill and hard thought-through expression of the art is behind the apparent simplicity.

While I'm not comparing any of those with each other or with Struth's work, so it is with this newly commissioned photo of Prince Philip and the Queen. The Queen has worked with many modern artists with differing results. So what's special about this one, especially as it seems like a failed snapshot at first glance?

You'd expect the Queen to be also the centre of attention in the photo. But she's slightly overexposed, by the light of the window, while Prince Philip is more in shadow. But Struth has exposed for the shadow, and, though off-centre, it is Philip's face which draws the attention. The Queen is the lighted one, but the man in her shadow is the subject. Yet he will always be "in her shadow", so he's both the focus and the "lesser" sitter – although he's the main subject in this photo taken for his 90th birthday. So, Struth has placed the main subject in a secondary position while keeping him the main subject. Setting up one of the perceived "tensions".

So the centre is not the centre, and also the left-hand third of the photo is the out-of-focus room. It, like the over-exposure, looks almost a mistake – that failed snapshot look. But Struth has placed the couple in situ. The room is something we'll never experience as our front rooms. It's opulent and royal, and almost slightly ridiculous, although Struth doesn't make that statement. The in-focus side gives us the detail, the rest is there to show this continues – it's a real room to these two. Two older people who, on one human level, should be at odds with this expression of opulence and wealth, but who in fact sit almost comfortably within it: this is a royal photo after all. Yet Struth has made them also merely two older people – not sarcastically as, for example, Martin Parr may have done, but just realistically. In the midst of this rich architecture, Philip's jacket – just a tad uncomfortably, just a tad "old man" style – is buttoned awkwardly and high across his stomach. There is the tension of setting and the human, of elite and simply a couple, of the background of history which he leaves for you to make of it what you will.

After the simple play of light (and you can see he has moved that chair to place the Queen and Philip is the differing light just how he wants), with the chair slightly angled (so Philip is also further away, another created "tension" for the focal point) there is a final detail which is neat. The two sit at either side of the sofa, each with an elbow on the sofa's arms, separated by 6 inches of empty space: somewhat formal. And yet there is body language – the Queen's feet subtly point toward Philip in a way which any amateur body language explorer will know is an indication of a person's affection for the other. She needs him, even though she's the one in the light. She's removed from our centre of attention, but she we always be the centre of attention and the person we look at is the one important to her.

There will be those who couldn't care about the monarchy and hence about this photo. But Struth has pulled off what will be a great photo in the history of monarchic portraits, whatever one may think of the monarchy itself. Coupled with a history, the photo will be revealing in future years. He's combined his interest in architecture with a human portrait, a portrait of power but also of power in a relationship, a portrait of the Queen in which her husband is the focus while she is the dominant. A seemingly casual play of "tensions" between aspects and themes, which lift it up. You might walk past it in a gallery you might. But I'd also guess you might look again. And again.

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