As the pace of work on the Museum Photographs slowed, Struth was conscious of a desire “to make a different kind of work with a different subject.” The experience of making much more dense and complicated street photographs in China, as well as a few photographs in forests for the Winterthur project offered possibilities for pictures which had a multiplicity of layers and a density of detail.
Intrigued by Mayan culture and its intricate relationship to nature, Struth had first planned to make an expedition to the tropical rainforests of Central America as early as 1982. A visit to Mexico in 1993 was prepared and then cancelled due to the political situation in Chiapas at the time. Around 1996, Struth formulated a plan for the Paradise pictures, to the extent of already envisaging an installation with several works surrounding the viewer. He began to research forests and jungles around the world, using trips to China, Japan and Australia, often scheduled for other reasons, to seek out possible locations. The first eight of the Paradise pictures were made in the tropical rainforest in Daintree in the northeast of Australia in 1998. Struth then made several works in Yunnan province in China, on the island of Yakushima in Japan, and in the forests of Bavaria, Germany, in 1999.
New Pictures from Paradise was the generic title for an exhibition of the first 19 pictures in the series at the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York in 1999. Struth sought a title that communicated that the pictures were not primarily focused on botany, nor some kind of elegy for a paradise lost. He was more interested in the kinds of observation, contemplation or experience that the works could stimulate and a melancholy reflection at the turn of the millennium as to what kind of utopian or progressive thinking might be possible after the end of the Cold War.
Struth then continued the series with trips to tropical rainforests in Yuquehy, Brazil, in 2001, Peru in 2003 and 2005, Hawaii in 2006 and New Smyrna Beach in Florida in 2007 (at the same time, Struth was beginning a very different series with visits to Cape Canaveral in Florida). In total the series of New Pictures from Paradise comprises 36 works, all on a large scale. The method of making these works was very different from that used for Museum Photographs, where Struth often took a large number of photographs, each one different because of the constant variations caused by the movement of people before selecting one particular picture. By contrast, he was able to make the Paradise pictures in a much more economical way, using over half of the plates he made. Struth considers the Paradise pictures to be his “most intuitive” body of work, formed primarily by a more purely pictorial approach which he believes was influenced by his long years of practising Tai Qi.
Whilst a small number of these pictures reprise the compositions of classical landscape paintings, with foregrounds, vistas and horizons, most of them position the viewer before a screen of forest or jungle that includes a plenitude of details of nature without offering any hierarchy or structure to the viewing experience. “Although they have a strong feeling of time, they are ahistorical. One sees a forest or a jungle but there is nothing to discover, no story to be told. They have more to do with the self. The viewing process is complicated, and the viewer becomes more aware of how he or she is processing the information, heightening an awareness of the here and now.”
At the same time Struth recognises that some of the photographs are informed by certain motifs and elements relating to a specific culture. Several of the works made in Yakushima in Japan foreground the growth of moss, stones and ancient trees and appear to reference the tradition of Japanese gardens. The photographs made in the rainforests of Peru and Brazil connect with the idea of an exuberant Latin American culture whilst the works made in the pine forests of Bavaria draw on the formative importance of the motif of the forest— ‘Der Deutsche Wald’—in German art and literature.
With the Paradise pictures, and later with the Audience series, the actual installation of the works in the space of the exhibition becomes a crucial concern.