Photography Writ Large: The Monumental Art Of Thomas Struth Struth is known for massive pictures of architecture and people looking at art in museums. But a few years ago, a commission to photograph the British royals pushed him out of his comfort zone.
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Photography Writ Large: The Monumental Art Of Thomas Struth

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Photography Writ Large: The Monumental Art Of Thomas Struth

Photography Writ Large: The Monumental Art Of Thomas Struth

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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.

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