Meanwhile, on the page following the clock image is an even larger-scale color photograph of Notre Dame in Paris. By placing the 1930’s art deco style building of the Chicago Board of Trade in between images of the Pantheon in Rome and Notre Dame in Paris, Struth has bridged a span of thousands of years and two continents in order to make some kind of sense out of the physical world we construct, out of the emblems of progress of different periods and in effect he has synchronized time by ordering these images. Similarly, Austerlitz explains to his companion that time did not “truly reign supreme” until railway clocks were synchronized, that “It was only by following the course time prescribed that we could hasten through the gigantic spaces separating us from each other.” The work of both Struth and Sebald attempts to narrow this vast space through their respective mediums, not only the “space separating us from each other,” but also the space that separates us from the blurred sweep of history.
As I labored through Struth’s books, including Strassen, which consists of mostly black & white city scenes looking down the middle of unpeopled streets, I discovered that the clock picture was the only image out of sixty eight similarly made photographs that had no trace of sky whatsoever in the frame, and that the clock became the stand in for the horizon we expect to see in a landscape picture, reminding us that the physical world we inhabit is a relentless confine of time. However, while recognizing time as an irrevocable fact, Austerlitz questions its extremities:
It is not so long ago, after all, that it began spreading out over everything. And is not human life in many parts of the earth
governed to this day less by time than by weather, and thus by
an unquantifiable dimension which disregards linear regularity,
does not progress constantly forward but moves in eddies, is marked by episodes of congestion and irruption, recurs in ever-‐changing forms, and evolves in no one knows what direction? (p 100)
It is very curious that Sebald uses weather as that which can transcend time. This unquantifiable weather pattern that defies the rules of time and moves unpredictably toward no particular route, this storm, as it were, is what Walter Benjamin writes “what we call progress.” Austerlitz then explains that besides the dead and dying, which are outside time, those who have undergone “a certain degree of personal misfortune” may very well be “cut off from the past and the future.” Here Austerlitz is slyly speaking about himself. Having been cut off from his lineage and desperately trying to connect to his past, he deems clocks ridiculous and avoids current events in the hope,
…that time will not pass away, has not passed away, that I can turn back and go behind it, and there I find everything as it once was, or more precisely I shall find that all moments of time have co-‐existed simultaneously, in which case none of what history tells us would be true, past events have not yet occurred but are waiting to do so at the moment when we think of them. (p 101)
In addition to being an allegory for photography itself, and a key reason that Sebald includes photographs throughout his books, the above passage summonses Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history” yet again, which Sebald cites in his closing remarks from his lecture Air, War & Literature. Benjamin’s “angel of history,” whose;
face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. (Benjamin)
It seems Austerlitz himself is the angel of history. As Benjamin’s angel’s face is turned to the past, Austerlitz has turned back to try to go behind time to find his past. There, he finds that all points of time exist concurrently; likewise the angel of history sees “one single catastrophe” happening in front of him at once. Ultimately it is the storm of progress that plunges Austerlitz into the future no matter how firmly he resists. This is precisely what W.G. Sebald has done over and over again throughout all of his works by facing the past and blurring the lines of time and place through his characters, landscape and writing techniques.
Benjamin’s “angel of history” is also a pertinent guide for looking at Thomas Struth’s entire body of work. Looking at his retrospective book we find ourselves sifting through the centuries from the ancient churches of Europe and Forbidden City in Beijing, to the modern advertisements in Times Square and the rush of pedestrians through Shibuya in Tokyo. Struth presents us with the most illustrious constructs known to man, like the Pantheon and Notre Dame, as well as the mundane dwellings so many of us inhabit, like the cluttered quarters of Naples or the high-‐rise projects in Chicago. And, perhaps he merges the past and present most vividly in his museum photographs, where he captures the general publicintermingling with great works of art from throughout the centuries. But, Struth spans the globe and the traces of history in the landscape intentionally to try to get us to look at the world as the “angel of history” looks at it, not as a chain of events, but one single occurrence, one wave of progress.
In Maria Morris Hambourg and Douglas Eklund’s essay “The Space of History,” which is one of countless texts written on Struth’s work and is included in Thomas Struth 1977-‐2002 (not to be confused with his more recent retrospective Thomas Struth: Photographs 1978-‐2010) the two go back to Struth’s coming of age as an artist to give us insight as to how his work would unfold. Sure enough, they discovered that as a student at Dusseldorf, just after he had switched from painting to photography, Struth read Walter Benjamin’s “Thesis on the Philosophy of History” (1940) and chose to write about it for his qualifying exam. Hambourg and Eklund explain that Benjamin’s “angel of history” constituted in Struth a “critical engagement with the past.” They point to Benjamin as a necessary guideline for Struth saying “Benjamin described the individual’s ethical responsibility to the voices buried in history: one could cast lines out to points in the past that would unlock the potential of the present.”