For over thirty years, the Düsseldorf School has been making photography safe for museums. Mostly they’ve done this by increasing the scale of their photographs while suppressing chance within their frames, as if the practice of photography were less like marksmanship and more like painting. The members of the School—the group of photographers that coalesced under the tutelage of Bernd and Hilla Becher in the 1970s and which includes, among others, Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Thomas Ruff and Thomas Struth—create meticulously composed photographs of immense size. They exude an air of chilly perfectionism and god-like remove: a world seen from above, full of blank faces and empty rooms.

Within this group, Thomas Struth has always stood apart. A Fall show at the Whitechapel Gallery in London offered a chance to survey the course of his career (Struth’s work is currently on display at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, and at Museu de Arte Contemporãnea de Serralves in Portugal). Unlike most of his peers, Struth eschews digital manipulation of his images. More importantly, Struth’s work differs in the attention he pays to human figures and the degree to which he allows contingency to dictate his results. His motto might be: coldness without cruelty. This search for a mode of expressionless expression is a deep strain in German art. It goes back to August Sander at least, and gained new currency with the postwar generation, trained to look at the scars of the past without making overt comment. But Struth stands at an angle to this tradition. The guiding tension in his work is between the general and the particular, the weight of historical accumulation and chance encounter. It’s already visible in one of his earliest streetscapes, made in 1978 when he was just twenty-four.

It looks like the tide washed up over the Lower East Side last night. Crosby Street is covered in trash. The asphalt’s been stripped off too, laying bare the cobblestones underneath. No one is around. It’s hard to tell what time it is. The sky, a uniform grey suede, gives no clues. It might be early morning, or it might be a few months after the detonation of a neutron bomb. A single Cadillac coupe points down the street toward a vanishing point in the infinite distance, pinning the scene to an era.

This is Struth at his best, when the dream of a totally disembodied, objective photography produces its opposite: an uncanny intensity of vision, whose clarity only deepens its mystery. These early pictures of deserted streets in different cities—New York, Lima, Chicago, Edinburgh, and Struth’s native Düsseldorf—endow scenes that should look like nothing, like architectural noise, with a certain grave charisma. Suddenly it matters immensely how a parking garage got where it is, and a perfectly banal row of postwar block houses starts to vibrate with the historical resonance of the strata of ancient Rome.

In the Eighties, Struth began making large-format family portraits. He photographs his subjects in their homes and allows them to pose themselves, with the only requirement that they all look at the camera when they’re done. The portraits work best when the family members have enough room to articulate their relationships in space; their subjects appear to us as enigmas, social puzzles pitting soft power against mutual affection. When the very distinguished-looking Eleanor and Giles Robertson of Edinburgh pose, they sit across a table from one another. He looks sidelong at the camera with his hands folded placidly on the table; she faces it directly, totally aware, giving away nothing. The space between them, a diagonal of the wooden table extended to the top of the frame as a ribbon of plum-colored wallpaper, becomes a condensation of what we presume to be a long and complicated marriage. The Hirose Family, in a tastefully furnished Hiroshima home full of stacks of books and objets d’art, poses on a couch in a conventional line. The Hiroses are fascinating nonetheless, from the way the eldest daughters take the lead in meeting the camera’s gaze to the web of family resemblances that plays through the group like a three-generational genetic roulette.

Often though, the family portraits fail. An image of Gerhard Richter, Struth’s early art school mentor, is startling, but mostly for the degree to which the painter conforms to an unexpected stereotype. Ferocious in an immaculate navy-blue suit and surrounded by his eerily confident-seeming children (and, for a bit of added gravity, his own painting of a skull), Richter ends up looking like a movie director’s dream of cultivated plutocracy. In photographs from Lima and Shanghai, the family members stand in a uniform mass; although they’re the size of billboards, the pictures have all the surface tension of a snapshot.

Struth’s most famous series, the museum pictures, walks the same line between illumination and banality. Struth photographs museum-goers, individually and in groups, in front of great works of art or inside famous architectural monuments. The resulting images don’t show a dialogue between viewers and objects so much as the private life of paintings, which seem to float in their own autonomous world, separate from both the enclosing gallery walls and the crowds drifting past them in search of a contact high. In almost every case, the painting in the photograph overpowers the figures in front of it. In the case of the San Zaccaria altarpiece, the recessed space of Bellini’s painting becomes a door across dimensions, ignored by almost everyone in its church.

Which leads to the question: What exactly happens in front of works of art? Do they create spaces of social interaction, or do they just channel the flow of people around and past them? To his credit, Struth avoids easy ironies about the fetishization of art (usually; sometimes they crop up, as with Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, besieged behind glass in Japan), allowing museums a multiplicity of functions. Sometimes the people in them are a bored throng, sometimes differentiated individuals enjoying their private communion. Occasionally they even form something resembling a community. In Pantheon, the best photo of the series, a group of tourists clusters beneath the great dome of the temple, driven together by its desire for a place in the light.

The Pantheon photograph is also a prime example of Struth’s technique, which is on the surface as mute and affectless as that of his Düsseldorf professors Bernd and Hilla Becher. But Struth doesn’t share the Bechers’ dogmatism or their faith in the taxonomic grid. The Bechers’ typologies of industrial forms work only as assemblies. Piled together, their gas tanks and water towers seem to offer a window past themselves, into the universe of Platonic forms. For Struth meanwhile, each series is a road, a direction of inquiry. His streetscapes, family portraits and museum pictures stay rooted in the social world, proposing something about human life between kin, culture and history.

In much of his more recent work, however, Struth leaves this territory behind in search of grander effects. In the Paradise series, Struth photographs jungles in Asia and the Americas. The resulting pictures are wall-sized tableaux in which impenetrable masses of foliage, without depth or contrast, fill every square inch of the frame. Their density is alien and impregnable, and their size feels extraneous and bludgeoning. Struth has written that they are intended to elicit a moment of contemplative stillness, but instead of provoking meditation they seem to repel thought.

Something similar happens in many of Struth’s recent cityscapes. Huge color pictures of Las Vegas resorts, Korean mega-cities and Peruvian slums view their subjects from an Olympian remove. These are blank, instant landscapes with none of the concentration and mystery of the early black and white pictures. Certainly this is on purpose. The wall-text about the movement of global capital and a culture of simulacra and formal flatness mirroring historical shallowness writes itself. Big, grand and bland, the pictures hew so close to contemporary museum aesthetics that they seem to vanish before your eyes. But the fact remains that they are photographs that try to have it both ways, scoring a quickie rush of the sublime off a load of boilerplate criticality. You could call it cynical romanticism. One photograph from Yosemite is exemplary in this regard. El Capitan shimmers as an unreal white massif in the background while a swarm of tourists look away, taking photographs by their cars in the shadows. The fools!

Struth’s newest photographs move in yet another direction. They are of various complex technological superstructures: gigantic shipyards, supercollider arrays, fusion reactors, chemistry labs and the like. Sometimes they look monumental. A semi-submersible rig (it looks like an oil derrick) looms like an alien invader over a South Korean dock. The heat-resistant tiles of a space shuttle stand in for a cathedral ceiling. Often, these pictures are inscrutable. In a photograph titled Tokamak Asdex Upgrade Periphery, the tangle of cables and machinery is as dense as the foliage in the jungle photographs. These are the guts of our scientific-world. Their arrangement can’t be read, their purpose only guessed at. Seeing them exposed offers a vague thrill, but without an entry point for the viewer, they remain mute.

One picture, of a chemical laboratory in Edinburgh, stands out from the rest. The world of beakers and toxins under investigation is separated from us by a glass hood, as if under quarantine. Equations and diagrams cover the surface of the glass; among them, some disgruntled scientist has added in red marker, “J’ai mal au nez.” It’s to Struth’s credit that he for once refrains from telling us whether the stuffy nose is an environmental problem or the result of a cold in the soul.