Within his oeuvre Struth considers only two bodies of work to be open-ended: the photographs of streets and cities, and his portraits of families. He regards these two ongoing projects as akin to a library, from which pictures can be selected and arranged according to a specific situation.
Since his first family portraits in the mid-1980s, Struth has continued to extend the series, rendering this body of work the most consistent in terms of subject and approach. “The more family photographs I make, the more intriguing the project gets. I like the slow speed of the series and am interested in how my own development is somehow reflected in the atmosphere of the photographs.”
The incidence of family portraits mirrors, to a considerable extent, the pattern of Struth’s friendships, working associations and travel commitments. Families from Japan, China and Peru have augmented the main body of work drawn from friends and acquaintances in Europe and North America. The photographs of families in non-Western cultures—the Ma family in Shanghai, or the Ayvar family in Peru—open up the possibility of a study of different configurations of family life in different cultures. The photograph of the Ma family in Shanghai in 1996, for example, resulted from Struth’s sustained interest in Tai Qi, specifically the Wu style created by Ma Jiang Bao’s maternal ancestors.
A different family photograph including the figure of a ‘master’, the artist Gerhard Richter with his family in Cologne in 2002, followed two individual portraits Struth had made of Richter in his studio in Cologne and sitting in a room of his paintings at the Museo Nacional Reina Sofia in Madrid in 1993. In the beginning of 2002, on the occasion of his retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Richter asked Struth to make a family portrait accompanying an article about Richter’s work for The New York Times Magazine.
As in earlier family photographs, the interiors often integrate other pictures on the walls behind the sitting family— for example, the religious reproduction hanging on the wall above The Ayvar Family, Peru (2005); the paintings of a skull and a head of a young woman in The Richter Family 1, Cologne (2002); the Caillebotte painting in Untitled, New York (2001); or the large colour map of the world in The Felsenfeld/Gold Families, Philadelphia (2007).
To date, Struth has made 55 family portraits, of which 35 have been included in exhibitions. The remaining 20 family portraits exist only in prints which Struth gave to each family involved. In addition, Struth has made 21 portraits of couples, of which 15 have been exhibited.
Familienleben/Family Life, a book bringing together 40 family photographs, was published in 2008 to accompany an exhibition at the SK Stiftung Kultur in Cologne. A second version of the exhibition was presented at the De Pont Stichting in Tilburg in the Netherlands, also in 2008.