In Thomas Struth's 1989 photograph of visitors to the Louvre museum, a half-dozen viewers standing in front of Gericault's monumentally scaled masterpiece The Raft of the Medusa unconsciously arrange themselves into the same pyramidal structure as the figures in the painting.
Struth's photograph, itself monumentally scaled in relation to the gallery in which it hangs, is an ironic comment on how people interact with art - one which, by implication, applies to the people looking at Struth's photograph as well as to the people in it.
Because Struth's image is so huge, it emanates an almost visceral echo of the awe that the people looking at Gericault's painting, which is even more gigantic, must have felt.
Visiting Struth's huge retrospective exhibition at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art recently, I found myself glancing around to check whether people nearby weren't also arranging themselves in accordance with the artist's photographs, unconsciously reacting like iron filings gripped by the invisible force field of a powerful magnet.
Struth's very large color photographs exemplify a style that has come to prominence in museum and gallery exhibitions only over the past 15 years.
Until the late 1970s, color photography was still burdened by the taint of commerce and advertising, long after its black-and-white counterpart had been embraced by the art-world establishment.
The pioneering color photography of artists like William Eggleston, Robert Adams, Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin and others began to break down some of those barriers.
Still, when most curators and critics of the era thought about photography as art, they tended to think of the great black-and-white practitioners from Andre Kertesz and Henri Cartier-Bresson to Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston and Ansel Adams as setting the standard.
Since then, however, color photography increasingly has come into its own as an artistic medium. Struth, born in 1954, belongs to a generation of German and Northern European photographers who have garnered new recognition and respect for the medium. They include Andreas Gursky, Candida Hofer, Thomas Ruff and Rineke Dijkstra, all of whom have been directly or indirectly influenced by the seminal work of the German husband-and-wife team Bernd and Hilla Becher. (Many of these artists were also featured in the Baltimore Museum of Art's exhibition Common/Places: Contemporary Photography From Germany and Northern Europe last year.)
The Bechers first attracted notice in the late 1960s, when their documentary-style surveys of industrial architecture - blast furnaces, pumping stations, etc. - coincided with the new strategies of art making being worked out by American minimalists and conceptualists.
The Bechers systematically recorded hundreds of similar-type structures from the same perspective and under similar lighting conditions to create a comprehensive typology of industrial architectures.
They often exhibited their photographs together in rectangular grids that emphasized the repetitive qualities of the imagery, which harked back to a tradition of German documentary epitomized by the exhaustive survey of social types carried out by August Sander during the 1920s and '30s.
Struth, along with Gursky, Ruff and others, were students of the Bechers in Dusseldorf, where they absorbed their mentors' repetitive typological approach.
Struth's earliest photographs were black-and-white scenes of deserted city streets. All the photographs were shot with a large-format camera on cloudy days from a central vantage point, like the middle of a roadway, that put the perspectival vanishing point in the exact middle of the picture.
As he refined this method, Struth was able to compose increasingly complex images dense with associative and symbolic meaning - the orderly conformity enforced by city buildings and streets as well as the chaotic accumulation of signage, utility poles, construction fences, vehicles and people themselves. Struth later applied this compositional virtuosity to his color work with even more stunning results.
The Met show presents some 90 works charting the evolution of Struth's art over the past two decades, from the early black-and-white street scenes to portraits, landscapes, flower pictures and his acclaimed series on museums and churches, which are quite simply some of the most stunning images in the history of photography.
This is a stupendously impressive exhibition that, like the giant Gursky retrospective at MOMA some years ago, can't help but remind viewers anew of the sheer pleasure of looking at pictures even as it highlights the emergence of the large color photograph as one of the most significant art forms of our time.