PRINT January 2001

Alex Alberro

If there is a group of contemporary artists that has made it a point to reconstitute highly skilled photography in the context of the advanced visual arts, it’s the generation that studied at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie under Bernd and Hilla Becher—Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth, Candida Höfer, Petra Wunderlich, Axel Hütte. Although each photographer is remarkable in his or her own way, they are unified by an easily recognizable style that privileges meticulously composed scenes produced with the highest possible definition and tonal differentiation. One of the most precocious of this group is Andreas Gursky, whose initial work of the early ’80s—modestly scaled, infallibly exposed, sharply focused images seen from a central perspectival position located somewhere above the scene—seemed to proceed in step with the Becher legacy. Gursky’s panoramic views of quotidian subject matter in the former Federal Republic of Germany were as dispassionate and impersonal as the Bechers’ images of blast furnaces and water towers and suggested a similarly objective approach. It’s clear that, by now, Gursky’s images have changed in several important ways: They’re much larger in format, taking on a pictorial grandeur and presence that phenomenologically engages the viewer’s body; and the photographer’s scope has shifted beyond the German pastoral to encompass a broader geopolitical arena. Indeed, in the last decade Gursky has roamed to sites and locations all over the world, from Cairo (Cairo, 1992) to Los Angeles (Los Angeles, 1998), from Brasília (Brasília, 1994) to Singapore (Singapore I, 1997). But through to the present his carefully crafted, broad scenes are characterized by what at first appears to be an objective mode of depiction that registers the modern world in a remarkably detached way.

This is by no means to imply that Gursky’s photographs were not from the very beginning a significant departure from his mentors’ work. The archival and archaeological approach that has informed the Bechers’ projects since the ’50s has clearly never been at stake for him. Whereas that pair sought to rescue for historical memory the extraordinary subtleties and qualities of now obsolete industrial-era edifices designed by anonymous engineers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Gursky’s photographs focus on the most recent phase of capitalism, apparently commenting on reified leisure, consumerist fantasies, and global transformations of production. And while the Bechers never depicted people working in or around the industrial architecture they photographed, Gursky’s pictures, despite an initial impression to the contrary, are almost always inhabited. Furthermore, Gursky has employed color from the start. He is in fact a master colorist, which further contributes to the overall sensuousness and extraordinary visual splendor of his images. Then too, unlike the work of the Bechers, which is firmly, one could almost say classically, embedded in the photographic medium, Gursky’s images strain the traditional conception of photography insofar as they include a digital component, mobilizing the possibilities offered by electronic processing techniques. For instance, Hong Kong, Shanghai Bank, 1994, fuses images taken from three different floors of a facing building into one composition. Similarly, Times Square, 1997, amalgamates interior and exterior shots of a typical John Portman hotel courtyard to create an almost surreal architectural space. This manner of working entails a procedure characterized by utter control, which explains why the illusionism offered in Gursky’s pictures is so excessive, and why, given the enveloping vastness of many of his photographed scenes, there is a peculiar absence of perspectival distortion. Unless tile viewer sprouts eyes like flies, no one single standpoint can be isolated, resulting in strangely alienating, stylized vistas. In turn, though the images never entirely make the shift from simulacrum (a picture of a picture) to simulation (in which the image has no origins in the real), and thus do not entirely cross the threshold into pure virtuality since the final results are composites of photographic documents, one starts to intuit the presence of multiple camera positions or points of view.

One of the questions that comes to mind as we look at Gursky’s pictures has to do with the implications of his valorization of photographic skills. For if Conceptualists such as Ed Ruscha and Dan Graham purposefully banalized the documentary approach by employing amateur cameras and cheap development and printing technologies to produce shoddy color snapshots of fleeting vernacular moments, they, like their mentor Andy Warhol before them, still adhered to the principles of seriality to structure their work. For Ruscha and Graham, it was the set of parking lots or swimming pools, or the one-after-the-other serial order of the barrack-like suburban tract houses, that was crucial rather than the particular details of the stock architecture. Similarly, the Bechers suppressed the individual characteristics of the objects or scenes they photographed in favor of what they called “typological systems” within which no one photograph—let alone the relationship between sign and referent—was more important than the interrelationship between images in the series. Thus, for example, in the Bechers’ suite of blast furnaces, the individual details composing each image are less significant than the overall effect of the series as a whole. And one can detect the same typological or archival impulse operative in, for instance, Ruff’s multiple portraits, or Struth’s “randomly chosen” urbanscapes, where once again the emphasis is located in the structure of seriality. However, in the pictorialist aesthetic advanced by Gursky’s meticulously calculated images, the primacy and permanence of fine-art photography is reasserted. Each photographic composition is unique in its own way—a characteristic that overwhelms whatever structural parallels the image might have with others like it. Surely it is this persistent effort to produce distinct, singular images that led Gursky to digitally manipulate and control his work. Thus the rigorous dismantling of the autonomous, auratic art object, not only by Conceptual photographers of the ’60s and ’70s but also by the Bechers and much of their artistic progeny, is dismissed by Gursky in a single Wagnerian sweep. Furthermore, in contrast to Conceptualist photography, which sought to problematize visual experience and perception through the manipulation of photographic means (e.g., by reintroducing the fragment, the fleeting moment, the slightly out-of-focus shot, the mundane document of a predetermined site), there’s an underlying essentialism at work in Gursky’s photographs that attempts to render visible the structural principles at the heart of the concrete world and, more important, to unearth fundamental affinities between products of the organic world and that of human invention, between nature and technology. How, in this totalizing perspective, these spheres can be reconciled, fused, integrated, and eventually collapsed into each other is precisely the ideological problem at stake.

Nowhere is this conflation of the worlds of nature and technology more evident than in Gursky’s industrial interiors. Within the highly mechanized factory floors depicted by picturesque tableaux such as Grundig, Nürnberg, 1993, Siemens, Karlsruhe, 1991, Mercedes, Rastatt, 1993, and Opel, Bochum, 1994, objects and people appear in an abundance and variety that provides an opportunity for astonishing visual delight, not unlike the experience one has before a spectacular land- or cityscape. And yet, there’s an overall sense of imperturbability, of balance, inherent in these banal scenes, as no detail within the broad structural layout of the panoramic compositions is singled out and everything is shown in equal focus. The representations of labor are creatively transformed into elegant visuals self-consciously offered for the eye’s consumption. PTT, Rotterdam, 1995, is a case in point. The expansive horizontality of this large, eight-and-one-third-foot-wide image is doubled by the horizontal surges of the vast composition. One reads the image from foreground to back, the industrial gray floor followed by systematically ordered rows of gray and blue machines, trolleys, and workstations that recede into the far end of the room, where a gray wall functions as a horizon line. Above the wall, the ceiling is equipped with suspended acoustic panels, arranged geometrically in such a way that they form horizontal bands. Vertical elements such as supporting columns, stacks of crates, table legs, even acoustic sound absorbers punctuate the strong horizontal stratifications, partially gridding the overall composition. Interspersed throughout the tremendous wealth of pictorial incident are deindividualized workers who become continuous with their environment, so much so that they appear as inanimate and cold as the machines they operate.

Still, it would be a mistake to read these equivalencies of technology and nature in Gursky’s pictures as a commentary on technology’s mimesis of nature; instead, Gursky’s motivation is the masterwork, the valorization of the fetishized object of high art. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his “museum pictures” (e.g., Untitled VI, 1997, Untitled X, 1999, and Turner Collection, 1995). Unlike, say, the museum photographs of Louise Lawler, which systematically explore the institutional and discursive conditions that govern systems of value in the art world and thereby problematize the self-sufficient fine-art object, there’s not a single image in Gursky’s museum-based work that focuses on a noncanonical object or on the interstices between the masterpiece and the trivial detail. Rather, what resonates in his pictures of canvases is a confidence in the continuing relevance of traditional high-art conventions, the centrality of aesthetic objects, and the autonomy and separateness of artistic culture generally. (Here it is telling that even in Struth’s museum photographs, including Museum of Modem Art I, 1994, which, like Gursky’s Untitled VI, features Pollock’s One: Number 31, the viewers contemplating the work are given as much importance as the art objects.) Of course, Gursky’s use of the large tableau format, the broad white border around the photo paper, and the thick wooden frames that circumscribe his enthralling photographs all offer evidence of a reformist, restorative agenda, but his recent nonreflexive focus on the masterpieces of Pollock, Turner, and Constable, each of which epitomizes the value of high art in its own way, makes the case even clearer.

When it comes to analyzing the primary concerns of the photographs, then, Gursky’s oeuvre becomes considerably more troublesome, in a way that recalls Bertolt Brecht’s famous remark that a photo of the exterior of the Krupp Works does not attest to the conditions of slavery within. What do Gursky’s pictures reveal about the nature of the existing conditions of production in those locations? The end result is a highly superficial, aestheticized approach to the sites of labor. For Gursky, everything, including industry, shopping, and high and speculative finance, has become cultural. Which would not be an issue in itself if one also found a reflection on the second half of this equation—that culture has become profoundly instrumentalized, subject to the very conditions of use-value governing every other sphere of contemporary experience. That this is not the case speaks to Gursky’s affinities with a problematic side of twentieth-century German photographic history, namely, the Neue Sachlichkeit work of Albert Renger-Patzsch. For just as Renger-Patzsch fused nature and industry, aestheticizing both in amsimilarm anner, for Gursky as well “The World Is Beautiful,” to borrow the tltle of Renger-Patzsch’s best-known book of photographs. Thus the workers at a construction site in the middle of Hong Kong (Hong Kong, Island, 1994), a teeming harbor in Salerno (Salerno I,1990), a Portman Hyatt Regency in Atlanta (Atlanta, 1996), or a factory in Germany merely serve to give further visual detail to the grand overall composition, filling out the scene in a manner similar to the way in which commuters in a Paris airport (Charles de Gaulle, Paris, 1992), parliamentarians in the German Bundestag (Bundestag, 1998), tourists in Thebes (Thebes, West, 1993), even chickens in a Krefeld farmyard (Chickens, Krefeld, 1989) complete the picture.

Indeed, whereas Gursky’s pictures initially suggested an intellectually rigorous project, his subsequent work has made perfectly clear that he’s less concerned with subject matter than with formal properties and the awe-inspiring potential and power of the images. The high-tech sweatshop in Germany, the cargo-loading area on the tarmac in Hong Kong (Hong Kong Airport, 1994), the shiny commodities in a Paris trade show (Car Show, Paris, 1993), the stock market floor in Chicago (Chicago, Board of Trade I,1997; Chicago, Board of Trade II, 1999) are as separate from the new configuration of global social and economic relations in which they exist as are the stage-managed pictures of marvelously illuminated showcases systematically lined with smart designer clothes (Prada III, 1998) and athletic shoes (Untitled V, 1997). Here, the fullest potential of Gursky’s digitally montaged, densely detailed shots is realized, in a seemingly uninterrupted fusion with advanced forms of advertising.

Defining the mise-en-scene of each of his spectacular tableaux from the carefully selected, elevated vantage point of his sharp-focus camera, digitally suppressing and modulating details according to the demands of the flat, allover compositions (in the process conveniently adjusting reality), Gursky evidently is concerned less with the order of things as they are dialectically manifested in a particular instance than with the formal qualities of a totality. In this sense, his work is of a piece with that of many representatives of neo-Pop in the contemporary art world. But unlike the latter, whose works openly acknowledge their ironic, often highly cynical take on contemporary conditions, Gursky’s fascinating images exploit the documentary expectation the photographic medium inevitably carries with it and carefully conceal the artifice at play in their digital manipulation. Thus the patches of colors and forms that typify his highly stylized pictures create a multitude of patterns and clusters more evocative of a meticulously balanced abstract composition than the specific social or economic structures they in fact depict. Gursky, attempting to sum up his working method, may have inadvertently put his finger on the new superficiality that could well be called his signature: “In the end, I decided to digitize the pictures and leave out the elements that bothered me.” Rather than reveal something about the unsettling nature of globalization and the social and economic forces that create and govern the sites and objects he photographs, Gursky, in his ultimately nihilistic way, is clearly more interested in another game—a pictorialist celebration of style, craftsmanship, and the perfect photographic image.